Alice Diop de Saint Omer is pushing the boundaries of global cinema

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The other day, while researching his next movie, alice diop he stumbled across a dark piece of his nation’s past. During a brutal period of French colonization in the 1930s, a law forbidden colonized in Africa film themselves. Born in the suburbs of Paris to Senegalese parents, Diop has spent 20 years building a film career without knowing that history. That he would finally find out while on the Oscar campaign for his award-winning new movie, Saint Omer?

“It blew my mind,” Diop tells me over Zoom from Los Angeles, through a translator. “The situation I am experiencing is a way of repairing history. That I, the son of descendants of the colonized, now represent France with this film, is a kind of irony of history, a way of repairing history.”

Saint Omer marks the first time, in more than 70 years of selections, that France has submitted a film directed by a black woman to represent her in the race for the Oscar for best international film. (All eligible countries can submit only one film to compete for nominations in the category.) Having won the Venice Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and received universal acclaim, the film was less a surprising choice than a sadly overdue one, and a testament to Diop’s undeniable achievement. The director calls this “the result of a political struggle that I have been fighting for 20 years,” adding: “France has selected a film where form is at the heart of the project, a very demanding film from a formal perspective. , and directed by a black woman on top of that.”

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A highly regarded documentary filmmaker, Diop switched to fictional filmmaking with Saint Omer, his narrative debut. However, its roots are deeply historical and autobiographical: the film, an evocation of the Greek tragedy of Medea, is based on the 2016 case of Fabienne Kabou, a French woman of Senegalese origin accused of infanticide, and who admitted in court to kill her 15-month-old daughter on the beach, the girl was washed away by the tide. Diop attended this trial as an observer and was shocked. “Because of my position as a woman, as a black woman, I have a very specific point of view on this story that others didn’t,” he says. Written Saint Omer, She says she worked with actual court transcripts to recreate that sensational and tragic courtroom experience, creating the character of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) as a stand-in for Kabou, and a pregnant young novelist named Rama (Come on Kagame) as a stand-in for itself. (Diop shares script credit with the film’s editor, amrita david, as well as novelist Marie Ndiaye.)

© Super/Everett Collection.

Between Laurence and Rama, Saint Omer creates an innovative twin-handle. We are mostly on stage, and mostly listening to Laurence’s testimony. Just as important as listening to the words of the defendant, her serious and honest attempts to explain the inexplicable, is to see how the assistants process them. “Without the character of Rama, it would have been very awkward for me to make the film; I think it would have been almost immoral and sick to see such a horrible story like that,” says Diop. “This movie puts two characters in parallel. One who would prefer not to speak but is forced to speak, and another who cannot speak and who finally speaks to us through the reactions that her body has to the words of the other woman.

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It’s a distinctive kind of cinematic language: it subverts the conventions of courtroom drama for a thorny and formally groundbreaking study of dual characters. Laurence essentially rattles off her biography to those eager to punish her. She describes her difficult upbringing and her tumultuous relationship with her own mother; she painfully reflects on the isolation of life in what she is essentially a single mother, an immigrant without many options and at the whims of people who don’t care to understand her. Faced with the darkest vision of motherhood, Rama inwardly examines her own impending life change.