Known for its documentariesthe French director of Senegalese origin Alice Diop is preparing to release its first fiction film, twice on Wednesday, November 23 awarded at the Venice Film Festival and selected for represent France at the Oscars.
Saint Omer is inspired by trial of Fabienne Kaboua Senegalese mother who had killed her baby by abandoning it on a beach in Berck (Pas-de-Calais) in November 2013, shaking up all the prejudices to which one would be tempted to refer to explain her gesture.
What prompted you to go to Saint-Omer to follow the trial of this woman who killed her child?
It all started with an intuition. From the photo of a black woman with a mixed-race baby in a stroller published in a search warrant from the national gendarmerie after the macabre discovery of a baby washed away by the waves on a northern beach. Seeing this photo, I have a strange feeling of familiarity. The impression of recognizing this woman, of seeing in her features that she is Senegalese, which will be confirmed later. With her first confession: “I left my daughter on the beach with the idea that the sea would take her body away. » An astonishing phrase, which opens up the field of a possibly tragic, mythological, psychoanalytical imagination… What I hear is: « I offered my daughter to a mother more powerful than me. I felt guided by the promise of a story that goes beyond the horror of his crime.
Why does your film linger less on the news item than on the mystery that surrounds it?
The mystery of this woman, the instability of her act and all that it refers to, that’s what moves me deeply. Not just me, but all the women attending the trial. This story of infanticide fascinates by the question it raises: What is a mother? And what is the unfathomable, inextricable, ambivalent, violent, complex bond that binds us to our mothers? This story makes us fall into our abyss, illuminates our underground, asks the questions that annoy us or that we avoid asking… Even today, the film continues to work for me, according to the screenings and what people tell me. say they cross themselves when they see it. The film had to remain open to interpretations, leave room for the spectators, send us back to ourselves, because that’s exactly what I experienced while attending the trial.
Why did you choose to make this story a fiction rather than a documentary?
I was magnetized by this story for a long time, without understanding or knowing if it would be possible to make a film of it. It was only after the trial that I understood that it had to be made into a film. A documentary ? The story had already passed. A fiction ? On condition of rediscovering the power of what I had experienced. By using the minutes of the trial, but without ambiguity or ambivalence about what really interests me. And by inventing the character of Rama, pregnant woman and fictional character, confronted with this documentary material. An intrusion of fiction which makes it possible to precisely reveal the stakes of the film, namely the question of motherhood.
This novelist who attends the trial with a view to making a book, is that you?
The main function of Rama is to enable identification. He’s a fictional character shot through with autobiographical emotions, but Rama isn’t me. Fortunately, otherwise it would be Alice Diop’s diary. Me, I didn’t arrive pregnant at the trial and I don’t have a problem like her with her mother, mine died when I was 17. Through Rama and what she experiences during the trial, the film tells the story of all the women who eventually find peace with the mother they had to become the mother they will become. A deeply universal question that everyone can relate to.
What image do you keep of the real Fabienne Kabou?
The image of a woman who escaped all those who tried to circumscribe her. Twisted, vulnerable, overwhelming, manipulative, lying, crazy, etc., she was all of these. It was his power and it was his mystery. It was through this way of escaping that she forced us to look at ourselves. I try to reproduce this effect in the film, that the spectator is moved, upset, flabbergasted, violent, at a distance, sent back to himself, by the effect that this woman has on him, even if it means changing his mind permanently. .
How is your point of view as a filmmaker different from that of court reporters?
There are things that I had the impression of seeing that others may not have seen, from my place, that of a black woman, of Senegalese origin who understands without intimately, organically doubts the type of mother that the accused could have been and the type of mother that she had. Maternity shaped by exile produces a form of violence, or sadness, that I know and that comes to me not only from my own mother, but from my mother’s friends or my friends’ mothers.
Are there things that you don’t understand, like the reasons for his action justified by an alleged bewitchment?
She says she doesn’t know and wants someone to help her find out. But no one knows. A college of psychiatrists considered the issue of her criminal liability but she was not found unfit to stand trial for being insane or delusional. When she says she was marabouted, is it to give an irrational explanation to something that is just as irrational and to make it become rational? Witchcraft is the starting hypothesis of an examining magistrate who practically offered him this argument on a plate. She locked herself in it and used it, perhaps out of opportunism – the Advocate General speaks rather of manipulation – or to provide a reassuring explanation for what has none.
Didn’t the misunderstanding of his crime lead to derogatory remarks or racist stereotypes?
There is indeed a racist unthought. This black woman is a projection surface where everyone projects their a priori and their prejudices. Myself, I could have been tempted to enclose this woman in a story where the question of racism explains her gesture. Now, not only do I have the feeling that this is not the case, but such a film would have reduced the scope and the power of this woman. It seemed fairer to me to try, through long sequence shots, to question its complexity, even if it meant upsetting my own stereotypes, my own fantasies, my own projections.
We are talking about the mother, but it is also about a child whose evocation at a given moment provokes tears. Did it happen like that during the trial?
More than the verdict, it was the fact of naming this child and bringing her into existence that brought her justice. It was overwhelming to hear the lawyer compare her to the child that we ourselves are and to the inextricable bond that binds us all to our mothers. At the end of a screening, a woman came to tell me: “Watching your film, I realize that I was this child left on the beach by her mother and that I survived it. I find that magnificent, as if we were all children who had survived our mothers!
In Venice, you ended your thanks with a resounding: ” We will no longer be silent. » Are there people who still doubt it?
It’s true that with this film, people hear me more than ever. I was invited to compete, rewarded, celebrated. So yes, you can hear me, thanks to this extraordinary success, but I can’t be alone in carrying a story that isn’t quite the same as that of the people who mainly make films in France. And I don’t know what will happen to me in six months. This is why I uttered this sentence which is addressed to those who do not want to hear us as much as to those who are waiting for us… It is a way of saying that the path of history is on the way and that it will be with us.
Representing France at the Oscars, isn’t that a way of setting history in motion?
I’m very happy! This is for me a hyperpolitical victory, very symbolic. Not only that of a black woman, but of a French woman who makes films where the formal question is central at a time when the platforms weaken the creative act by no longer considering each film as a prototype. The joy of this selection is that it gives a platform to express the convictions that I have always held. That it takes a multitude of gazes to complete the missing stories, and God knows there are some, to renew us, to transform us, by things that we have not yet seen and that we are waiting to see .
Your voice that we now hear, wouldn’t you be tempted to put it at the service of political debate?
My political remarks, they are nested within the forms of films that I invent. This is where I speak loudest and loudest, this is where I speak in my place and on my behalf, as a filmmaker. A movie like Saint Omer responds, in a certain way, to the racist and xenophobic violence that we regularly witness.