The 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival is barely over and we remember Alice Diop’s rare double: a Silver Lion (Grand Jury Prize) and a Lion of the Future (best first work). Saint Omer, the award-winning film is a subtle and radical exploration, abyssal, with a large-scale aesthetic bias. It is the first work of fiction by this talented documentary filmmaker of Senegalese origin who has already won a César and two Berlin Bears.
Feminine and feminist
Drawing the threads of a real story of infanticide, the filmmaker plunges us into the depths of motherhood and the relationship between mother and daughter. In 2016, the trial of Senegalese student Fabienne Kabou caused a lot of ink to flow in the French and foreign media. It would have been easy to rush into the dead ends of a reassuring moral story. However, in Saint Omer, Alice Diop does not redo the trial, nor does she discuss the sentence. Elle does not set itself up as a judge but embraces and probes all the complexities of the subject. As in his other opuses, his often fixed camera places the protagonists in the center of the frame. She films their faces, lingers over reaction times and silences. The word becomes powerful, the words, the sentences push us to draw from ourselves the resources necessary to hear this story of a tragic destiny.
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The work impresses as much by its ambition as by its execution. Indeed, the film is above all feminine and feminist: in the writing of its screenplay (Alice Diop, Marie NDiaye and Amrita David), in its cinematography (Claire Mathon), its editing (Amrita David), its plot and its cast (Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit). The film is then a tour de force in that it finally allows an assumed and free anchoring of black women’s bodies in the representation of the myth and realities of the maternal figure, a universal figure par excellence.
“We will not be silent anymore”
On receiving her second Lion, citing the fundamental writings of Audre Lorde, Alice Diop declared: “We will no longer be silent. She is not positioning herself as the spearhead of a history of French cinema with extra-hexagonal origins which would begin in 2022. This would be tantamount to denying the genealogy, ancestry and influences of the extra-hexagonal filmmakers have preceded. Alice Diop’s words are quite different. First of all, although conscious of the fact that she is rewarded on an individual basis, it is in the name of the collective that she wishes to express herself by making use of “we”. What does this “we” cover?
And We like the title of his previous documentary, released in 2021, which already offered the public a realistic and uncompromising vision of contemporary French society. A “we” which also resonates like the echo of the impossibilities of French cinema, the absent or failing representation of the individuals, populations and communities of France which would not blend into a national mold that is both idealized and erroneous. A “we” to fill the cruel and persistent lack of characters of complex, non-stereotyped black women, characters that would open up new horizons of representation while questioning the projections frozen in the collective imagination.
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Alice Diop is a woman, black, French and of Senegalese origin. All of these aspects of his identity matter and cannot be fragmented – that would cause the fragmentation of his full and complete humanity. Similarly, the characters of Saint Omer appear on screen not as a set of demands, but as an artistic, aesthetic and therefore political affirmation of their right to an existence that is neither hindered nor fantasized, an affirmation that they embody in all their opacity. The universalism advocated on a national scale is also carried by the bodies which have, historically, been excluded from humanity.
The universal challenge
Thus, according to Alice Diop, universalism is not about magically erasing differences and identities, but rather about connecting them. The Saint-Omer trial, by scrutinizing all our institutions (family, justice, school, religion), becomes the theater which confronts us (finally) with the challenge of the universal as too few films do. were risky before.
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“We will not be silent any longer” does not announce a first speech. Rather, it is about the promise that it will henceforth be impossible to gag the works that emanate from those whose voices have been opportunely silenced for too long. Those whose invisibilization has lasted too long, despite repeated efforts to resist.
So it had to be done big and beautiful.
And that the first prize obtained for Saint Omer be awarded abroad.
It is up to France to make up for this delay.
In the meantime, thank you for this nugget.