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Review 'Saint Omer': We Are Chimeras. Alice Diop's Superb Trial

Por Sandra M Ríos U
X: @sandritamrios

"I hope this trial gives me the answer."

"I left my daughter on the sand because I wanted the sea to take her." That's how chilling and decisive the reason Laurence Coly presents when questioned by the judge about why she had killed her 15-month-old daughter. Coly, for the purposes of fiction, is the name of the accused in this story, where we witness her trial inspired by the real case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman sentenced to 20 years in prison in France in 2016 for this infanticide. The 36-year-old mother at the time tied the baby to her car and allowed the tide to rise. She left her while apologizing.

What the trial reveals, in the film at least, goes beyond any attempt to simplify this criminal act in a superb fictional debut by the French documentarian Alice Diop.

In 'Saint Omer,' we follow Coly's case, but the real protagonist of the film is Rama. It is from her perspective that we piece together this legal drama. She is a prominent literature professor and novelist who is pregnant and preparing a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Medea, so she travels to the small French town of Saint-Omer to cover the trial of this mother. Rama, one could say, is the director of the film herself, who actually attended the development of the case in court, obsessed with the details that were revealed about the incident.

What Diop does is not a dissection of the heinous crime itself, but rather an exploration of the deeper layers of being a woman and the implications of becoming a mother. The level of complexity that can be very difficult to explain, represent, and, above all, understand, is reflected in a character filled with ambiguities; with enough tools to stand out, including a high IQ, and with immense deficiencies from her childhood, a lack of affection, and the difficulties of being a black immigrant woman, which surface throughout the trial. A character who, like the judge, seeks to understand why she did it.

Diop does not aim for forced empathy with this cold, well-spoken, educated character without a hint of remorse. In fact, Rama's role is also there to show how a story like this challenges us at the core of our own morality because what the film demands is to free itself from prejudices. To avoid simplifying such a premeditated act as Coly's, carried out in such a significant location as the sea, under the notion of returning another being to the Earth, a kind of (macabre) justice, Diop questions the perspective of witchcraft and sorcery that was brought into play at some point in the real case as a defense mechanism and that the media took on themselves to disseminate and exploit, focusing on its evilness and the apparent rationality with which the murder was executed, on the consciousness of her actions.

The incompatibility with her reality, her loving life, and her motherhood that the perpetrator mentioned is exposed. While it may not be enough to justify her crime, it theorizes about the idea that not every woman is born to be a mother. Also, the uncomfortable shared responsibilities of parents, family, friends, the school and work environment, absent husbands and fathers, and society at large come to the surface. These are difficult to assimilate when such radical perpetrators emerge, and they are based on a wide range of issues such as lovelessness, isolation, toxic and manipulative relationships, Western superiority, colonialism, and discrimination. Diop said (and it's very true) that "rarely has the complexity of a black woman been depicted on film" without even considering the factor of race.

In 'Saint Omer,' the representation of two mothers, two concepts of life and motherhood, two migrant women, brings forth the essence of femininity in all its splendor, in the midst of such a cruel and painful act, and at the heart of their contradictions is a very particular sense of justice and alienation. If there is a superiority in this film, it is the author's ability to portray that complex female universe that a male filmmaker would have struggled to capture.

The narrative of this trial, somewhere between fiction and documentary – Diop filmed it chronologically, inviting local citizens as the audience and using real texts from the case – is filled with restraint and pauses until the brilliant turning point when the defense attorney appears only to remind us that we too are human and that it is easy to judge by seeing the criminal as the monster they are, alluding to fetal microchimerism, that we all carry a part of the other inside us, and therefore, we are, in part, products of one another.

The feature film will be part of the French Film Festival in Colombia (from September 20 to October 4). It comes preceded by its premiere last year in Venice, where it won five awards, including the Grand Jury Prize and Lion of the Future prize for best debut film.

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