Saint Omer probes a shocking French crime

Alice Diop was already an acclaimed documentary filmmaker when she became fascinated by the 2016 trial of a Senegalese-French woman accused of premeditating the murder of her 15-month-old daughter . Fabienne Kabou left her baby on the beach in a coastal town in northern France. She was eventually convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of witchcraft and postpartum depression.

Diop, also the child of Senegalese immigrants and a mother, attended the trial in the town of Saint-Omer. Although the eponymous film is her first feature-length feature, it has a documentary feel to it, with long scenes played “in real time” in front of an impassive camera, staged in an actual courtroom adjacent to where the 2016 trial took place. The no-nonsense but gripping courtroom drama has been widely circulated since its premiere last year (it won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was France’s entry for best international film at this year’s Oscars).

Saint-Omer director Alice Diop is fascinated by the story of a woman who abandons her child to drown.

Alice Diop, the director of Saint Omer, is fascinated by the story of a woman who leaves her child to drown.Credit: Alamachel

During the trial, which takes up much of the film’s running time, every aspect of who the accused woman (named Lawrence Corley in the film) presented to the judge was scrutinized: her relationship to her child’s white father, her claims of witchcraft victims, even her past as a philosophy student (why would she write a thesis on Wittgenstein, one of her teachers wonders, and not someone more relevant to her cultural background?).

Much of Coly’s conversations were taken verbatim from Kabou’s trial transcripts, but Guslagie Malanda, who plays the accused woman, said she and Diop didn’t try to create a literally accurate portrait of Kabou.

“We wanted to be bold about the loneliness and the fear that motherhood can bring,” she said through a French translator. “So those things reassure me because I haven’t been in prison, I haven’t killed children, I don’t know what it’s really like. But we can tell stories in another way without having to be exactly these people.”

One of the observers at the trial was the young Parisian novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame), who shared Kohli’s Senegalese ancestry. Although Rama is a fictional character, she is also an unabashed double for Diop.

Kayije Kagame, St. Omer:

Kayije Kagame, St. Omer: “Alice used to say to me ‘don’t act.'” So the question is, what does that mean? “⁣Credit:

During the trial, Coly harangues while Rama observes in silence – but there’s no immediate way to find out who either of them “really” is, let alone what’s going on between them at a distance.

With the film’s two stars sitting in front of me now, I wonder what it means for them to act in this situation, or whether the word “act” is enough for what Diop is asking them to do.

While neither Malanda nor Kagame are new to acting or film, there aren’t many on-screen credits between them. Malanda plays a young single mother in Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s film my friend victoria (2014), then took a long break as art curator (she does not state why on record, but with hollywood reporter Last year she observed that “None of France’s heroines are black — no”).

From left, Kayije Kagame, Alice Diop and Guslagie Malanda at the Venice Film Festival.

From left, Kayije Kagame, Alice Diop and Guslagie Malanda at the Venice Film Festival.Credit: Associated Press

Professionally, Kagame comes from a slightly different background. Saint Omer marks her debut, but in addition to creating installations and performance pieces, she has worked extensively in theater and directed her own short films.Both women chose their words carefully, making it clear that Saint Omerfor them, it’s not just another job.

Malanda in particular was reluctant to talk too much at first. “I still don’t know what acting is. Maybe when I have a longer filmography, you can come back and ask me.” However, she volunteered that, for her, it’s about “being and not being.”

It’s not hard to apply those words to her character, who is somehow both naked and distant in the stands. But what do they say about Maranda’s feelings about performing these scenes? “I don’t think it’s possible to be fully present when you’re performing,” she said, “because the present moment combines so many things at the same time. We are what we were, what we are, what we will be… You have to let the Something has to disappear to appear.”

Guslagie Malanda at the pier in Saint-Omer.

Guslagie Malanda at the pier in Saint-Omer.Credit: Associated Press

It will, and it won’t, which seems appropriate. “It’s a very interesting question about this film in particular,” Kagame said. “Alice once said to me: ‘Don’t act.’ So, the question is, what does that mean? Maybe it means life, experience, experience. Maybe it’s fiction, maybe it’s acting.”


Malanda and Kagame say that for them and for Diop, the historical truth is just a starting point. “Alice always told me: ‘Rama is not me,'” Kagame said. “Of course, I listened to her stories about her experiences, but I also took cues from the script.”

Maranda never met Kaboo in person. But did she feel a responsibility to her while making this film? “Yes, there is a responsibility. For me, it was about getting as close as possible to her through her words, perhaps one of the most intense encounters I’ve ever had in my life — meeting her through her words.”

both sides insist Saint Omer It might be described as a “true crime” story, but it’s a far cry from what the phrase usually evokes. “It’s the opposite of voyeurism, it’s the opposite of Netflix,” Maranda said. “Otherwise we’d be getting money from Netflix.”

“You’re going to a French court, which is very different from an American court,” Kagame added. Most important is Diop’s use of duration. “The fact that we’re locked up in this courtroom for a long, long time — it’s as if we’re sitting in it ourselves. Being in it like this is a lot more powerful than turning it into a spectacle.”

From this perspective, you might say that the audience is being asked to play the role of judge and jury. But when the idea was brought up, Maranda was quick to insist that it wasn’t that way for her at all.

“The goal of my character is not to leave room for people to make their own judgments. Because when I played Lawrence Corley, I didn’t even consider that there would be an audience, that they would consider certain things.”
Instead, she says, “I’m just being tested by myself”—acting and not acting, living in a fictional reality, both being and not being.

Saint Omer Opens in theaters May 25. Jake Wilson travels to France courtesy of Alliance Française.

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