Saint Omer Alice Diop Interview

Director Alice Diop on the invisible (but audible) connections between the film’s main characters.

There are a thousand ways to create a true crime thriller, but there may really only be one – if the goal is to draw the audience into the nuances of the characters in a way that encourages self-reflection rather than judgement. Saint Omer does just that, not least because director Alice Diop approaches the film form with a mix of documentary and narrative techniques. The film is based on the real-life trial of a woman accused of killing her young daughter, but this fictional account doesn’t rely at all on the prosecution’s and defense’s strategic subterfuge, exciting disclosure of withheld information, or crime scene recreations . Instead, Diop’s precisely composed long takes simply force us to sit and listen to the story being told by Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda).

A lot of unseen work is usually done in scripted features to help the audience focus on the drama at hand – everything from swapping out the skies from one day for another to adjusting the soundscape to focus on the dialogue, until important background noises have to appear in order to establish or reinforce an attitude. The courtroom, where much of “Saint Omeer” takes place, has a slightly more chaotic, but more realistic soundscape of rustling and stray noise. There’s always a bit of a human touch in the background, even as the process of infanticide unfolds.

The soundscape of “Saint Omer” was created by sound editor Josefina Rodríguez and re-recording mixer Emmanuel Croset, a veteran of working on Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. But Rodrígeuz, Croset and director Alice Diop take this more structured, human-tinged soundscape and then opt to amplify the specific breath sounds at the beginning, end and key moments of the film. The simple, audible reminder that these people are alive keeps the audience from projecting tropes onto them.

It’s impossible for a reason. “This is a very intellectual, intellectual film, but at the same time [it’s] very sensitive, very soulful,” Diop told IndieWire, “[And all the feeling] arises from the extremely sophisticated sound work guided by my sound editor and mixer.” Diop and her team leave it somewhat ambiguous as to whether the sounds are coming from Laurence Coly upstairs in the defendant’s box or from the writer Rama (Kayije Kagame). , watching from the benches, but for one purpose: the overwhelming presence of the sound and the lack of a definite source actually unites the two main characters.

Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly in "Holy Omer"

“Holy Omer”

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“The breaths we hear from Laurence and Rama during the trial are like another language. It’s a way of getting very close to the emotions, sensations and feelings of these characters,” said Diop. The sound almost seems like a way to enter her and experience from a highly subjective perspective the extremely spare, utilitarian courtroom, a space ostensibly dedicated to objectivity and truth. But the viewer also decides to a certain extent for himself what this subjective point of view is. In a way, the audience gains access to both Rama’s and Laurence’s subjectivity, and the soundscape unifies them both. Diop’s approach to sound reflects her approach to showing all characters’ complex relationship to motherhood.

“It’s coming from the held breaths,” Diop said. “The film moves on the border between fiction and documentary, but at the same time it is an extreme, extreme film. The sound work is documentary-inspired, but also carries [abstract, expressive techniques] even.”

To hear the rest of the IndieWire interview with Diop, listen to the latest episode of The Filmmaker Toolkit, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and Stitcher.

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Lindsay Lowe

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