SAINT OMER: The Rich Complexities of Acclaimed Documentarian Alice Diop’s Lauded First Narrative Feature

It is undeniable that French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s recent filmography brought her recognition as the cantor of contemporary French cinema. Her latest work “Saint Omer” (2022) — her first narrative feature film — has taken the European film scene by storm, earning two awards at the 79th Venice Film Festival: the Grand Jury Prize, and the First Film Award. And the accolades continue to trickle in, with France announcing “Saint Omer” as its official Oscar submission for the upcoming 95th ceremony. The film has marked many who have seen it, but not for obvious reasons. This essay delves into the complexities of Diop’s first dramatic feature, and its documentary stylistic influence. 

“Saint Omer” is based on the tragic tale of Fabienne Kabou, who was convicted of killing her daughter in 2013 — as is the case for the film’s central figure Laurence Coly (played brilliantly by Guslagie Malanga). When prompted to reflect on the telling of this story during her rencontre with American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Diop shared that her main intention was to tackle the issue of maternity, the central issue of the film. She complexifies our understanding of motherhood and contests the usual romanticization of this experience.

Although some may misread Diop’s decision to foreground the culprit’s perspective as an attempt to appeal to the true crime crowd, the filmmaker continues to vehemently distance herself from the genre, denouncing the unhealthy curiosity it often sparks in fans.

But why fiction and not a documentary, as one would expect of Diop? It was a question she was seemingly delighted to receive from moderator Dessane Lopez Cassel (Editor-in-chief, SEEN Journal). For Diop, fiction gave her the freedom documentary could never have. Protecting the antagonist’s dignity and keeping her story intact was a priority. Fictionalizing the real-life account, therefore, became the natural choice for a story she deems a political statement.

Diop’s own encounter with the real-life tragedy, randomly coming across the 2013 story of a Senegalese immigrant woman who had killed her 15-month-old mixed daughter in Saint-Omer, a small town in France. Diop, being of Senegalese descent, as well as the mother of a then 15-month-old mixed child, had to investigate further. She decided to attend the trial.

In essence, Diop’s intention is to show that everyone is capable of committing the unthinkable if pushed.

“All parents want to kill their children,” Wiseman playfully responded, before proceeding to echo Diop’s sentiment, that the fiction route was a decision he had to consider in the making of his narrative feature film, “A couple” (2022) which also premiered during this year’s NYFF60.

One cannot understand Diop’s process in developing “Saint Omer,” without anchoring their analysis in her career-long approach to documentary filmmaking. Developing a story based on the true-life occurrence of infanticide, committed by a Black woman immigrant who admits it, but pleads not guilty, could be seen as the riskiest decision one could take for a contemporary French film project. However, living in a world concurrently obsessed with maternity and disdainful of mothers — a crisis moment for abortion access as an attack on women’s rights and bodily autonomy — Diop felt compelled to.

Fabienne Kabou’s story couldn’t die in court or be left literal, as much of this tragedy uncovers the realities of many women and mothers. 

Guslagie Malanga as Laurence Coly

In writing “Saint Omer,” Diop leaves the essence of the story intact as most of the script was drafted from the court’s trial minutes. In fact, Diop went to the extent of capturing the details of Fabienne Kabou’s body language, gaze, and eloquence, and diligently looked for a talent who embodied the power, stoicism, vulnerability, monstrosity, and humanity of the culprit.

“The casting process took me about a year,” Diop said. “I wanted both Guslagie Malanda and Kayije Kagame [playing Rama, a literature professor and novelist, who observes the Coly trial in order to write about it] to progressively and carefully get acquainted with the characters as I knew this could be a delicate, and dangerous process for both.”

With both actresses coming from theater, one cannot help but wonder if this was premeditated. Yet, Diop affirms this was not a factor she necessarily considered when casting. She remained true to her documentarian background and chose to approach the casting process from this precise lens, casting talents she recognized as the embodiment of the emotions she meant to share with her audience. This is what makes “Saint Omer” the fiction it is. Invested in capturing the gravity and weight of this real-life tragedy, Diop finds ways to embody discomfort, stress, and apprehension through the use of space and silence. That is where one truly gets to witness the particularity of her style. 

From a passive glance to an anxious gaze met with a subtle smirk, much of the unspeakable is unspoken. Unfolding at a slow and steady pace, “Saint Omer” holds the audience witness to the introspection characters go through. Against the backdrop of an airy courtroom, Coly’s life journey is brought before a court audience who wants to understand the actions of an already deemed monstrous woman. But refusing to gloss over the culprit’s complex life journey, Diop invites the audience to reconsider the general categorization of such gruesome acts as only capable of being committed by evil and heinous beings. Instead, she wants society to hold a mirror to itself and investigate how it may have played a role in fostering such an unhealthy, and unstable individual.

Through the mise en scene and instrumentalization of the original court order, Diop finds ways to complexify our understanding of Coly. By fixating her gaze on the perspective of a condemned Black woman, it is as if Diop wants to compel the audience to recognize the humanity of this Senegalese immigrant, who arguably stands as one of the most invisibilized and marginalized subjects of French society.

Kayije Kagame as Rama

Through Coly’s subjectivity and life journey, Diop aims to reveal a certain universality and interconnectivity existing between all subjects present and tuned into this trial. “What guided my work was the desire to highlight the complexity of this woman beyond her blackness,” she said during the post-screening Q & A. “I wanted to show that the Black body can carry and speak to the universal.”

And while Diop emphasized that she is not Rama — a character that carries emotions Diop experienced when attending Kabou’s trial — she described the character as a vehicle for an honest look at the ugly, the unspeakable, and the taboo. Additionally, she asserted that the purpose of Rama’s character is to permit the audience to access an introspection that would otherwise remain stuck in the realm of the literal, the black-and-white. Coly’s perspective is made accessible through Rama’s, and Rama’s is complexified and de-essentialized through Coly’s. 

“Saint Omer” is about women and the demystification of motherhood. But it is also about the shared experiences of African women immigrants, their children, and the lingering effects of generational trauma. What does it mean to care for a child while contending with the realities of the liminal space in which you are forced to operate? What does it mean to be trapped in the role of a mother while attempting to survive physical or psychological violence through desensitization? One can certainly appreciate Diop’s commitment to telling a universal story while resisting the temptation to erase Coly’s blackness and subsequent realities.

Skillfully bringing Coly and Rama’s cultural specificity to the forefront, Diop expressed wanting to enter dialogue with women who had mothers like hers, like theirs. An immigrant woman who, circumstantially reduced to motherhood, becomes dispossessed of her multi-faceted self and turns to rigidity and apathy as means to survive the circumstances of her life.

In a society that so often invisibilizes women, particularly Black women, Diop makes it a point to bring people like her, her mother, friends, and their mothers out of the shadows by way of confronting society with their humanity, power, and complexity.

“A woman who cannot speak is a woman compelled to speak,” the filmmaker said.

“Saint Omer” is the story of a woman haunted by her demons, with no place to go for support. She keeps looking for ways to contend with her torment but is relayed to reclusion due to shame, and the fear of judgment. Diop’s first narrative feature film speaks to society’s essentialization and caricature of motherhood and aims to provide an avenue for women and their allies to reflect on its real implications.

Alice Diop’s critically acclaimed, multiple award-winning “Saint Omer” opens in the U.S. on January 13, 2023, in NYC at Film Forum.

Farima is a culture writer, curator, and independent researcher who primarily focuses on the concept of identity reconstruction within a post-colonial west African context, with a particular interest in gender studies, Islamic studies, fashion, and cinema studies. Farima is currently a project manager at Akoroko LLC., and a curator and office manager at the African Film Festival, Inc.