This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 23 is called "New Black Film Canon Week":
In 2006 Slate published a list of the 50 best movies by Black filmmakers, curated by Black critics, scholars, and filmmakers themselves. Since then, culturally significant and seminal films like Moonlight and Get Out have been released so this year they have updated and expanded the list to 75 movies. These movies span over a hundred years, several countries, a variety of genres and styles, and encompass different sizes of production budgets.
This week let’s celebrate Black filmmakers and watch one of these artistic treasures from Slate’s The New Black Canon.
Saint Omer has already been established as one of the best films in recent years (it is currently #291 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century). Alice Diop was a director of documentaries who attended the real-life trial of a woman who left her one-year-old child on the beach to die. Taken by the story, Diop decided to make her first fiction feature, basing it on the real trial. There is a character, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer attending the trial in order to write a book about it, who is a stand-in for Diop at the real trial. There's a certain meta quality to all of this, but Diop doesn't just rely on a documentary style to tell this story, and the acting, which is powerful throughout, is a constant reminder that we watching fiction. Rama identifies with the defendant (played by Guslagie Malanda) to some degree, which further complicates the meta aspect (since Rama is also a version of Diop).
Saint Omer is easy to follow, but the emotional and philosophical angles are complex. As the mother says, when asked why she abandoned her daughter, "I hope this trial can give me the answer". She tries to understand what she has done, the court and the spectators also look for understanding, and we in the audience look to Diop to explain everything. But she isn't trying to simply explain. It's a mystery without a solution, but it's not frustrating. Rather, Diop convinces us that we often can't understand what others do, or even what we ourselves have done.