“I don’t know why, but I immediately felt very familiar with this woman,” says documentarian Alice Diop of her fiction-feature debut, which follows the trial of a woman who left her baby on the beach to die
In 2013, a Senegalese woman travelled 150 miles from Paris to a seaside town in the Pas-de-Calais department of France, breastfed her baby on the beach, and left her to drown as the tide came in. What became known as “l’affaire Fabienne Kabou” soon gripped the country, including documentarian Alice Diop, who first learned of the case when she saw Kabou’s picture in Le Monde, captured on CCTV at the Gare du Nord with her baby just hours before she abandoned her.
“I don’t know why, but I immediately felt very familiar with this woman,” says Diop, a Paris-born, first-generation Senegalese filmmaker whose work to date brings stories from the margins of French society to the fore. “I had this intuition she was from Senegal, which was confirmed a few days later when she confessed to the murder. We were also roughly the same age, and I had a mixed-race child myself, although they were of different ages. And that’s how I developed the obsession for this story.”
The more she read about the case, the more Diop felt “mesmerised”. The academically gifted Fabienne had moved to Paris to study law, later switching to philosophy in a move that saw her cut off financially from her parents and unable to continue her studies. Later, she entered into a relationship with an older white man, whom she claimed kept her hidden away from friends and family, and fell pregnant. When her daughter was born she exhibited signs of postnatal depression, refusing to leave the house till she was at least six months old. It was in this state of mind, unable to sleep and experiencing hallucinations, that she took a train to the resort town of Berck.
“When she was asked why she’d killed her child she used this sentence, which was completely strange but at the same time very lyrical,” says Diop. “[She said,] ‘I left my baby on the beach with the tide coming in so the sea could carry away her body,’ almost as if she was so completely detached from the act that it [took on] a sort of mythical dimension.” Mystified by this apparent lack of feeling – she said she returned home to Paris the next day as if she’d “just been shopping” – Kabou told police she thought she’d been influenced by “witchcraft”.
Determined to dive deeper, Diop travelled to Saint-Omer for Kabou’s trial in 2016. The events that unfolded there form the basis of Saint Omer, the director’s searching and poetic fiction-feature debut, overlaying the story of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist looking to turn the case into a modern retelling of the Medea myth. Soon, though, Rama finds herself overwhelmed by Laurence’s inability to account for her actions, which sparks painful ruminations on her own fears as an expectant mum, and her strained relationship with her mother. Through these women’s stories, Diop is free to lay some heavy truths on the viewer about motherhood, and feelings of guilt and abandonment amid migrant communities.
As a first-generation Senegalese migrant drawn to write about the case, it’s tempting to map Rama’s story in the film onto Diop’s own. The director has used elements of autobiography in her work before, notably in Nous (2020), where she juxtaposed a study of deprived suburbs along Paris’s RER B commuter line with old home-video footage of her family. It’s an assumption Diop swats away with a hint of irritation. “I don’t know why I’m asked this [so often] – if it’s because I’m a Black woman or if it’s because I’m a documentary maker – but I seem to be denied the right to be able to make a fictional work,” she says. “This is a fictional movie, and Rama is a fictional character. She’s not the transcription of my own personal experience or of my life.”
Diop films the trial scenes in long, lingering takes that often fall silent save for the creaking of the courtroom furniture. The effect is hypnotic, forcing the viewer to hunt for clues in the smallest of looks. As the accused (renamed as Laurence in the film), actress Guslagie Malanda wears an expression throughout that seems a mask of profound sorrow, regret and traces of something else – is it anger? Maybe even defiance? In one remarkable moment, her gaze alights on Rama in the public gallery, and she gives her a brief smile that brings tears to the writer’s eyes, later causing her to break down. How does Diop interpret the look?
“This is a question I’m often asked and that I actually refuse to answer,” says the director, a ‘next question’ klaxon sounding reproachfully in my head for the second time today. “My intention in the film was to leave the audience free to feel and meditate based on their own biographies and sensitivities. And of course, each person will have a different interpretation that is as relevant as my own. Even among people who have lived similar experiences [as Rama and Laurence], people who have lived in exile or Black people, Black women, there can be such a palette of reactions it would not be fair for me to somehow try to impose my own.”
Of course, the question of why Laurence/Fabienne did what she did must remain a mystery, a truth that Diop honours in her film by linking her story to the Greek myth of Medea. After all, what is a myth but an attempt to explain phenomena that lie outside the realms of human comprehension? Faced with such mystery we inevitably turn, as Rama does in the film, to our own lives. “It’s like [French cultural theorist] André Malraux said,” Diop explains, “‘When you want to understand someone you don’t judge, and when you judge someone, you do not understand.’”