Alice Diop • Director of Saint Omer
“This is a film based on words. But with so many words, you need silences, too”
by Marta Bałaga
- VENICE 2022: The French filmmaker delivers a stunner of a movie and a real punch to the heart with her latest effort
Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) killed her 15-month-old daughter. She left her on the beach and the child drowned – someone else found the body. Writer Rama (Kayije Kagame) decides to attend the trial. But the accused doesn’t know why she committed the crime, and now she is the one asking for help. We talked to Alice Diop, the director of the Venice competition title Saint Omer [+see also:
interview: Alice Diop
interview: Kayije Kagame
Cineuropa: We joke about frictions between mothers and daughters, and we roll our eyes at these conflicts. But there is a lot of pain, resentment and love that go along with it. Why did want you to talk about them?
Alice Diop: Precisely for that reason. This connection is completely inexplicable, and yet we all share in its intensity. That’s why I was so upset when I first heard that story, and that’s why I decided to go and attend the trial of the person who really did kill her daughter in this way. All of the women that were there – because most of us were women – journalists, lawyers and judges, we were sitting in front of her, knowing that she had committed murder. We were asking ourselves questions about our own relationship with motherhood. It’s such a universal subject, in all its contradictions and conflicts.
I come from a country where abortion is basically illegal, and there are cases of infanticide, too. But when it happens, people don’t want to talk about it; they don’t want to listen to these mothers. You do.
You could define what Laurence has done as a sort of belated abortion. The child was 15 months old, but it’s as if she never existed. She didn’t report her existence to the authorities – she was sending her back to limbo, you could say. But the problem with infanticide is that it’s still the biggest taboo, maybe the only one that exists nowadays. It’s hard to deal with it and hard to hear about it – to watch people who have committed this crime. That’s why I decided to talk about this terrible, delicate issue through fiction. Or through Marguerite Duras [Rama gives a lecture about her work in the film]. This way, I was able to try to probe this dark side of a woman.
There is this archival sequence I put right at the beginning, of women getting their heads shaved [in wartime]. They are being judged, right there on the square. Are they victims? Is Laurence? She is guilty – we know that. She also a victim, but of what? I am not here to pass any moral judgements; I am trying to understand.
It’s interesting that you stay in that room for so long and that you stick to that trial. There are no flashbacks, no embellishments. Just this person’s story.
I think the reasons for that are both moral and cinematic. Moral because how could I portray an act that has no explanation? She can’t explain it either. When the judges ask her for the first time: “Madame Coly, why did you kill your child?” she says: “I don’t know; I hope this trial will help me understand.” It’s a mystery for her, too, and who am I to try to solve it for her?
If I had tried to visualise it and show it – and provided I had been able to do so in a way that was not obscene – my vision would still have been limited. Also, I would never attempt a reconstruction of a crime. That’s not something that interests me as a filmmaker; I don’t want to add such images to the films I make. I do believe there is a power in cinematic narration that can bypass images. This is a film based on words, on different accounts, so it’s all very verbal. But with so many words, you need silences, too. It’s also to enable you to digest these words, to allow the viewers to create their own vision. I think that the voice-over and what happens off screen is just as important as what is actually shown. I made a film called On Call [+see also:
film profile] [in 2016], where I showed a doctor who was trying to help refugees. They have suffered because of the violence of exile, but similarly, all of their accounts were given without any images. I would never have dared to film that.
Do you see this as a movie about storytelling? Your protagonist is a storyteller and a writer, and they tell stories during this trial.
Absolutely, yes, you are right. It’s a meditation on storytelling, on its importance – the stories we hear, the ones we come up with, the one Laurence Coly gives during her deposition. She is indeed a storyteller. Her language is refined and very literary. She also speaks like that to distance herself from the crime she has committed, to protect herself from her own act, and to allow us to listen. Any other language would probably have rendered it unbearable.
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