Headline, June 27 2022/ REVIEW : ''' '' SAINT OMER '' SAILS '''


 OMER '' SAILS '''

ALICE DIOP DID EVERYTHING SHE COULD to place everyone in the same emotional situation, as if we had been in the actual trials.'' In her film ' Saint Omer,'' Alice Diop chose to delve into maternal ambivalence.

Diop, 43, came to filmmaking after studying colonial history at the Sorbonne, where she recognised her desire to unpack French society and the lingering effects of colonialism from her perspective as the daughter of Senegalese immigrants.

She could have chosen other ways to explore the subject, but, to her, cinema held the most power.

That calling is evident, for instance, in ''We [Nous],'' her 2022 documentary. It's made up of a series of unconnected vignettes capturing a diverse array of life in the Paris suburbs, and also includes archival footage of Diop's own family and her reminisces.

Though ''Saint Omer'' is her first foray into fiction, she sees it as a ''continuation and extension'' of the rest of her oeuvre.

WHEN THE FRENCH DIRECTOR ALICE DIOP ATTENDED the trial of Fabienne Kabou - a woman who left her 15-month-old daughter on a beach to drown, she wasn't intending to make a movie.

She felt an '' unusual identification '' with the person at the center of the 2016 case, she said in a recent interview, who like her was a Black woman of Senegalese descent with a mixed race child. She believed there was a '' nearly mythological dimension '' to the tragedy.

As the proceedings unfolded, however, Diop realized she wasn't the only woman who had been drawn to the town of Saint-Omer in the north of France to observe Kabou. Looking around her during the defense's closing argument, Diop saw others in tears.

''The story was bringing everybody back to profound and very personal issues,'' Diop said through the interpreter during an interview in New York last week. She continued, ''The conviction that I was going to do a film about it came from that very moment.''

Her experiences sitting in that courtroom have morphed into '' Saint Omer,'' the first venture into narrative features by Diop, previously a documentarian.

Upon premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year, it was awarded the distinction of best debut film and the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize, essentially second place at the prestigious event.

It is now shortlisted for the Academy Award for international feature. Diop is the first Black woman to direct a film that France has submitted for Oscar consideration.

'' Saint Omer '' adds a fictional superstructure to Kabou's case, with the novelist Rama [Kayije Kagame] providing the audience's window into the trial of Laurence Coly [Guslagie Malanda].

The details of the case remain the same : Like Kabou, Coly does not deny killing her daughter, but describes a descent into madness brought on by ''sorcery.''

Though Rama is ostensibly there to conduct research for her next book, a riff on ''Medea,'' watching Laurence provokes her to contemplate her nascent pregnancy as well as her strained relationship with her own mother.

Diop shifts between an intimate portrayal of Rama's silent moments alone with her thoughts and her changing body, and Laurence's harrowing testimony rendered in long, unbroken shots that force the audience to both sit with disturbing information and consider this woman's humanity.

To Diop, training the camera on a complex woman for that length of time was a ''political act,'' she said, adding, ''It was also a way to show Black woman in a way that I had never seen shown before.''

The film has a raft of heavyweight fans. In his Critic's Pick review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott called ''Saint Omer'' an ''intellectually charged'', emotionally wrenching story about the inability of storytelling - literary, legalor cinematic  - to do justice to the violence and strangeness of human experience.''

The director Celine Sciamma [ ''Portrait of a Lady on Fire'' ] compared the experience of watching ''Saint Omer'' to what it must have been like in 1975 to watch Chantal Akerman's ' Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,'' recently named the best film of all time in a Sight and Sound poll.

'' One finds oneself in front of a cinema poem - Alice's language is the history of the language of cinema to which it belongs, but also in her own history, is dangerous and radiant,'' Sciamma said via email.

During filming, the majority-female crew went through what Diop described as group ''collective psychotherapy'' as they individually reflected on their own bonds with mothers and children.

Though Diop is reluctant to say too much about how the experience of '' Saint Omer'' changed her views on the subject, because she wants audiences to come to their own conclusions, she did experience a shift.

'' There is no doubt that the process of going through this film is something that healed me,'' she said, '' that helped me put lights on certain things, that helped me repair some wounds.''

The Honour and Serving of the Latest Global Operational on Great Films and Makers, continues. The World Students Society thanks author Esther Zuckerman.

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