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Acclaimed documentarian Alice Diop marks her narrative debut with “Saint Omer,” a pulled-from-the-headlines legal drama that won the Grand Jury Prize and the award for best debut feature at the Venice Film Festival. High profile slots in Toronto, New York, and London are to come — making the French title one of the real breakouts of this fall season.

The wrenching film follows Rama (Kayije Kagame), a young novelist covering the trial of an immigrant mother accused of infanticide. With major elements never in doubt – the accused, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), admits to the act, though she still pleads not guilty – the Venice winner turns around more intimate, philosophical, and unsettling questions.

Like Rama in the film, you attended the real trial upon which “Saint Omer” is based. Did you do so with this project in mind?

I’m still trying to understand what drove me. Originally, I attended the trial out of intuition; something pulled me to this case, only I couldn’t say what. I think I needed to see the woman behind the media storm.

Throughout the trial I sat riveted, shocked, overwhelmed, disturbed, and dumbfounded by this real woman’s story, connecting her life to my own experience, to that of my mother, to the lives of so many Senegalese women I know. When, on the last day, I saw every other woman in the courtroom in tears as well, I understood that we’d shared something profound and unspeakable, which made the story universal. Only then did I decide to make this film.

What led you to develop it as a narrative feature?

A documentary was never the plan. At the time, I was too busy with research, plus we couldn’t shoot in the courtroom and I would never [make the real participants] reenact the proceedings. Anyway, I wanted to recreate my experience of listening to another woman’s story while interrogating myself, facing my own difficult truths. The narrative had to trace a series of emotional states that can lead to catharsis. It’s like accelerated psychotherapy.  

Was it difficult to create a sense of communion between two characters who never once interact?

That was our biggest creative challenge. On the stand, Laurence is forced to speak against her will, but somehow the words give voice to Rama’s internal monologue. Without making the parallels too obvious, Laurence’s words ignite in Rama, drawing out a torrent of feelings, nightmares, and fears that we leave intentionally ambiguous. The actors’ physical performances were essential here; we needed see the words of one woman taking shape on the body of another. 

The film offers no answer as to what pushed Laurence to such extremes.

Ultimately, the goal was not to understand the motive but to reflect upon the act. How does it affect us? What it says about our relationship to our own families?

To me, tragedy means exposing stories, both banal and uncommon, that pierce our innermost depths. If that’s what makes this case universal, the fact that it is carried on the body of a Black woman also makes the film political. The character of Laurence encourages all viewers, man or woman, white or Black, to look inside themselves.

Both onscreen and behind the camera, you assembled a majority female cast and crew. Was that a key choice?

If that wasn’t fully deliberate, nor was it wholly accidental. The film explores our relationships to our mothers and to our children. In retrospect, I think I needed to share that collective experience within a community of women. On set, everyone shared in that drama. There was little distance between cast and crew, between fiction and reality.  The mostly female team made that more acute. Together, we lived the six weeks of production as if in a trance; we were all of us haunted by this text.