Download: 'Saint Omer' Co-Writer/Director Alice Diop On Her Inspiration For the Acclaimed French Legal Drama
You’ve not seen a film quite like Alice Diop’s Saint Omer.
The French-language legal drama, selected as France’s official entry into the Best International Feature category at the 95th Academy Awards, dives into the trial of Laurence Coly, an intelligent but reserved young woman accused of leaving her toddler daughter on the beach to be swept away by the sea. Having observed the similar 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, Diop uses this film to explore motherhood, race, and the world of French immigrants. Saint Omer is particularly unique as it holds no judgment on its central characters, and it provides no easy answers. Rather, it leverages the amazing performances of Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga to explore a controversial case through a window of compassion and understanding.
Here, in an interview with co-writer and director Alice Diop through a French language interpreter, we explore the origins of this fantastic film. She talks about the real-life case that inspired her thoughtful exploration of the material. She also talks about the application of her documentary filmmaking experience on her first narrative feature. Finally, she talks about the gratitude she feels for her film’s selection as France’s official entry in the 2023 International Feature Oscar race.
Saint Omer will be released in the US on January 13, 2023.
Awards Daily: Alice, prior to making Saint Omer, you directed several documentaries. I’m curious as to what subjects most interest you in your documentary focus.
Alice Diop: As a documentary filmmaker, I wasn’t focused on specific stories or issues. It’s more about my encounters with people, locations, and how those encounters enable me to comment on what I see. More generally, when I make a movie, whether it is fiction or documentary, I like to use it to interrogate the society I live in and the world I live in.
So what helped me as a documentary filmmaker is that it has enabled me to see the intensity of the reality I’m looking at. As a documentary filmmaker, I think I feed from reality, and I’m able to recognize places of intensity. When I attended [the trial of Fabienne Kabou], I immediately realized that what I was going through. What I was going through was really, really intense, and I decided to use the transcript from the trial as a primary source for my film.
Awards Daily: What was your connection to the case of Fabienne Kabou that inspired you to make Saint Omer?
Alice Diop: It was really confusing for me to try to figure out exactly how the story of Fabienne Kabou connected with mine. But I feel as a Black woman, it’s probably the primary way I was able to connect to Fabienne Kabou because I was surrounded with people like her and also with mothers like the one she had, mothers affected by the melancholy of exile.
Awards Daily: Can you talk about the casting process? How did you find the two actresses to play these challenging roles?
Alice Diop: I met those actresses totally randomly, but it was when I was starting writing the script for the film. There was something that I felt about those women and that influenced my writing of the screen as a documentary filmmaker. I based my character on who you know people are that comes from my background as a documentary filmmaker, and I feel like that’s why the acting of those women is so organic in the film.
Awards Daily: The film has obviously been very warmly received from film festivals and is now the selection for France to the Academy Awards for next year. What does that mean to you as a filmmaker?
Alice Diop: It’s a great honor to represent France with this film. Saint Omer is a film directed by a Black woman with two Black women in the lead roles. This is a political statement in itself. It is really the culmination of a political struggle, my own political struggle, in the way I want to redefine the imagination and the narrative that can be told. I am now in the position that I can reach a bigger audience. I can also try to now represent the topics and subject matters that have been dear to me for more than 20 years, both as a documentary filmmaker and as a fiction filmmaker.