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Saint Omer: Shades of Motherhood

<i>Saint Omer:</i> Shades of Motherhood

Everything is a question of the gaze in Saint Omer (2022): Who sees whom, who sees what, and how? The gaze of society, of witnesses in a courtroom, of the predominantly white judicial system, of family, of mothers, of us as observers.

The film follows the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a fictional character based on the real-life Fabienne Kabou, a French Senegalese woman who in 2013 was accused of killing her mixed-race baby daughter. The movie’s other main character, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a young writer, attends the trial as she’s working on a book about Medea, the mythical figure who killed her children. Pregnant with her first child, Rama is French with Senegalese roots too. This is also the background of director Alice Diop, who—like the film’s viewers, and especially the Black women among them—vicariously sees through Rama’s eyes. She’s here to help us understand not why Laurence Coly did what she did but who she is as a human being.

Over the past few decades, several cases of infanticide committed by women have gained notoriety in France, capturing the interest of the media and society, and generally covered sensationally. One of the best-known involved Véronique Courjault, who in 2009 was found guilty of killing three of her newborns, two of whose corpses she hid in a freezer. I vividly remember my parents’ discussions while watching the news on TV. Though I didn’t fully grasp the details and legal issues, I knew Courjault was seen as a monster, and maybe she was one.

The news coverage was much the same in the Fabienne Kabou affair, only in this case the “monster” was Black, African, bright, and cultured, and even the police described her as “beautiful.” It was the first time I saw a Black woman charged for a crime like this, and I thought, “We don’t do things like that in our communities.” Diop was drawn to the case, to this woman, because such stories are not generally part of the French cultural imagination and are rarely seen on our cinema screens. The director has recalled being both fascinated and repulsed: she saw a bit of herself in Kabou’s story. She attended the trial without telling anyone, before knowing she wanted to write about it and make it into a movie.

Diop’s background is in documentary filmmaking, particularly films that explore the real life around her—the suburbs, or banlieues, where she grew up; Senegal, where she visited her family to make Les Sénégalaises et la Sénégauloise (2007)—and ideas of otherness and rejection, but also the possibility of being multidimensional. In one of her first projects, Clichy pour l’exemple (2006), she goes to Clichy-sous-Bois—where two teenage boys, one Black and one Arab, had recently died by electrocution in a substation after being pursued by the police—to dig into hidden structural violence in the suburbs. In La mort de Danton (2011), she follows the twentysomething Steve Tientcheu, who grew up on the same block as she did and dreams of becoming an actor.

Vers la tendresse (2016) is an intimate tale of young men from the Parisian suburbs, often labeled as “thugs” by French society at large. We (2021), on the other hand, connects disparate communities by way of the Paris region’s RER B train.

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