“I’m Driven by a Hybrid Culture, from Baldwin to Duras”

On November 19, 2013, as the tide was rising, Fabienne Kabou abandonned her 15-month-old daughter on a beach in Northern France. This Senegalese mother and former philosophy student, who claimed she had been manipulated by a “marabout,” an Islamic healer, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. This case is the starting point for Alice Diop’s film, Saint Omer, named after the town where the trial was held. The director met with France-Amérique to talk about her first fictional, feature-length work, which is set for release in U.S. theaters on January 13 and has been shortlisted to represent France at the Oscars in March. A study of motherhood, systemic racism, and the place of women in society.
Alice Diop. © Cyrille Choupas

France-Amérique: In 2016, you attended Fabienne Kabou’s trial in the Pas-de-Calais département. What particularly struck you during the hearing?

Alice Diop: Everything that happened during the trial was resolutely rich, deep, mysterious, and inexpressible. In the movie, I tried to recreate these multiple interpretations through the ways in which it was filmed, with long takes, discussions, and by placing this woman at the center of the collective gaze. The lawyer, the presiding judge, the examining magistrate, and finally, the accused, all had a chance to speak. And everything we hear has a different meaning for a Black woman, a white woman, or a white man. The ambivalence of Fabienne Kabou is what moved me. She is a victim in one way, but not in another. She pretended to have started a doctoral dissertation on Ludwig Wittgenstein – not Aimé Césaire. This is a very touching choice, because it says so much about everything she wanted to be, and everything she wanted to escape from. She wanted to escape from being a Black woman in the collective imagination

The taboo of infanticide enabled you to address different social issues in France, including post-colonialism, racism, and the position of women. These questions also resonate in the United States, where the right to abortion is being undermined. What challenges are revealed by these attacks on women’s bodies?

The sub-conscious, tangled thoughts that led me to make this film are the taboo of mixed-race children and the invisibilization of Black women, which interested me more than the figure of Medea [who kills her two children in the eponymous tragedy by Euripides]. But the movie also opens on archive footage of the victimized bodies of women who had their heads shaved after the Liberation of France, set to a text from Hiroshima, My Love by Marguerite Duras. It is an examination of the judgment of women’s bodies, and the film features both confidence and defiance in the act of judging motherhood. It is complicated to isolate an issue specific to the film, as it encompasses different themes. All I can say is that my film is an ensemble of 25-minute long shots about an extremely complex woman whom I invite audiences to listen to. However, I am unable to list the things that people should hear, as certain things are conscious while others are anything but. If I am asked if the film is trying to fight racism, I prefer not to take a stance because this would impose that interpretation on others. My film seeks out commentary, but I am the last person to be able to offer an interpretation of it.

The American poet Adrienne Rich said that “we know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” What is the mystery of maternity that tried to be resolved during the trial?

At one point in the film, there is a scene about chimeras, which symbolizes the exchange of cells between the mother’s body and the fetus during pregnancy. This moment draws on something primitive within us. A breaking point in which our minds turn to metaphysical questions within scientific theory. This unfathomable, organic, inexplicable connection between a mother and a child is contained within the metaphor of chimeras. An unfailing bond that ties us to our mothers and resists both loss and distance.

Do you agree that there is a tension between the particular and the universal within your work?

I think that I have focused on the universal since the start – the one referred to by Edouard Glissant, a universal that holds all particularities. This idea of living together without removing differences is something I have actually noticed in the United States. Personally, I am driven by a hybrid culture – from Baldwin to Duras to Nietzsche, and, in cinematic terms, Clouzot, Sembène, and Bresson. I am shaped by mainstream European culture, but also by minority cultures. I have a relational mindset.

The character played by actress Guslagie Malanda in Saint Omer is based on Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese mother who killed her child in 2013. Courtesy of Srab Films
Alice Diop has received many awards for Saint Omer, including the Grand Prix for Best Film at the Ghent Film Festival in Belgium. © Film Fest Ghent

How do you deal with being in the media spotlight in the run-up to the Oscars, and the fact that you are becoming the Black female director in French cinema?

I struggle with the media frenzy around me. When I say “I don’t want to be the symbol of a successful Black director” – it becomes a slogan that makes it seem that I am wary of being a Black woman. In fact, it is at the core of my work, but in the same way that James Baldwin said “I am not your Negro,” I am not the Black woman you think I am, the one you project. I am far more complex. What’s more, I don’t like the position of solitude within the idea of a symbol. Not that I don’t want to seize the opportunity, but I want many of us to seize it together. I have a very ambivalent relationship to representation, as it can’t be used to invisibilize others. It must be a call for deep structural societal change for granting access to other Black women on every level.

You refuse to be labeled a “director from the projects” and you use your films, most of which are documentaries, to visit spaces such as the theater (La mort de Danton, 2011), bars and betting parlors (Towards Tenderness, 2015), the Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny (On Call, 2016), the RER B commuter line (We, 2021), and the courthouse in Saint Omer. In what way are places important to you?

I don’t film institutions but, in a similar way to an ethnologist, I focus on symbolic spaces that house the contradictions and ambivalence of society. Closed spaces that present something that is hard to describe, such as racist violence or hidden colonial histories. But there are also places of humanity, such as the doctor’s clinic in On Call, which treats people in difficulty. It is both a place of pain and of care, a refuge. In La mort de Danton, I used a theater as the setting for something that cannot be shown: how racist violence tries to mold the other to its own image.

In Saint Omer, you pay tribute to Nina Simone. How important is American culture to your work?

Discovering jazz was crucial. I need to draw inspiration from these very harsh forms – the dissonance of Alice Coltrane, the impurity and disharmony of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. I first heard Davis on the radio when I used to listen to the news non-stop, and came across a track from Kind of Blue. As for Nina Simone, there is not a single second in my life that has not been embodied by one of her songs. It’s my bible, as if I were living certain passages of the Gospel that enabled me to understand my life. In terms of painting, the bodies of Black women by New York artist Jennifer Packer also have a major impact on me. When I see a Black body at the center of a painting, I wonder where all the others are. This is the materialization of all the other bodies that have not been seen or filmed. It is moving to see something new appear, but also sad to realize that it has never happened before.

Interview published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.