In 2016, French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop made an unusual decision. She decided to travel to a city in northern France to watch the trial of Fabienne Kaba, a Senegalese woman who left her 15-month-old daughter to die on the beach one night in 2013.
Diop didn’t tell anyone she was going. She herself wasn’t quite sure. But what she witnessed in those few days would inspire her first feature film, “Holy Omer,” which opens in U.S. theaters Friday.
Quiet and haunting, “Saint Omer” is not your standard courtroom drama, nor is it a gaudy “true crime” spectacle. In it, pregnant writer Rama (Kayije Kagame) bears witness to the testimony of Kabou stand-in Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda). Since winning the Best Feature Award at the Venice Film Festival, “Saint Omer” continues to collect awards and nominations, including a place on the Oscar shortlist.
With an English translator at her side, Diop spoke to The Associated Press this week about her intentions for the film, the “invisible women” at its heart and the unexpected catharsis she wanted to provide for viewers as well. Notes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Why do you think you were forced to go to court?
DIOP: I went to the test because I had a very strong intuition. But I didn’t know what it was for a long time. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to court and make a movie about it.’ I think as a woman, like many other women around me, I was completely fascinated by this story. I really went as a woman. What struck me was a sentence the defendant said to the police. When the inspector asked, “Why did you kill your daughter?” she said, “I laid my daughter on the sand because I wanted the sea to carry her away.” For the French, it has a very deep, psychoanalytical dimension, because in French mother and sea are the same word (mère and mer). I had a fantasy in my head of her offering her daughter to a mother who was more powerful than she felt. It was this imagery of this mythological concept that became a magnet for me. But during the five days I listened to this trial, I had no idea it would drag me into the deepest, darkest place of my being.
AP: Having a child myself internally changed the way I processed films and stories about children in need. Did you also have such an experience when you thought about a similar story as a mother?
DIOP: I can’t say exactly. But it’s true that my partner was very concerned about my obsession with this story. It was a complete mystery to me too. I didn’t understand why, as a black woman, I could be so fascinated by the story of a black woman who killed her child. That was incomprehensible to me. I’m going to tell you something very personal that I never talk about. I actually had very deep postpartum depression when my baby was a baby. And I believe that this trial is what helped me recover from that depression. I forgave not only myself but also my mother. It’s like this exam is helping me and killing all the trauma.
AP: Thanks for sharing, I feel like I could cry. We can definitely move on to talking more about the movie.
DIOP: It’s less dangerous when we’re talking about film.
AP: The idea of the invisible woman comes up a lot. Can you talk about the significance of that?
DIOP: I think it’s very central to the film. It frames and illuminates the woman no one listened to, no one saw, no one knew about. And the mother of this woman, the mother of Rama’s character, like my mother and all the mothers of this generation of immigrant women, are women that cinema has never shown or talked about. It was this that determined one of the most important concepts of this film, the very long ones, so that the audience finally had the opportunity to observe and listen to these women intensively for the first time. For me, it’s a political statement and it also made me want to do cinema. It’s a tool to showcase these women, to put them front and center when no one else has, and to understand the complexity of the character rather than the cliche.
AP: The score is also sparse but impressive.
DIOP: I wanted this score, the music, to evoke the theatricality and the myth of the emotions that I wanted to bring to the film, like a Greek chorus, a group of women who want to observe and follow together this strange phenomenon that took place. And as for the last track, Nina Simone’s song (“Little Girl Blue”) is for me the voice that comes in and brings comfort and reassurance to everything we’ve just witnessed.
AP: It is surprising that we are able to find catharsis in such a horrific case.
DIOP: The film works very hard to contain emotions, to keep them inside. There is a release of these emotions when we have the lawyer’s closing argument near the end. Finally, when Nina’s song comes on, no one can hold back their emotions, and what people feel is no longer the story of the movie, but their own story, as women, as little girls. This film, as I wrote it, was intended to give the audience the specter of a personal experience, as if they were watching the trial themselves. I was in tears at the end of the process and I know a lot of women watching are completely overwhelmed with emotion.
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