“Saint Omer” and “No Bears”: Reality vs. Art

13 September, 2022

Two of the best films that I saw in this year’s competition at the Venice Film Festival, out of a total of seven that I managed to catch, were also featured in its roster of awards – “Saint Omer” by Alice Diop, recipient of the Jury Grand Prix, and “No Bears” by Jafar Panahi, awarded with the Jury’s Special Award. Coincidentally, both films discuss how reality and art are mutually influential.


Known across the festival circuit for her documentaries, the most recent of which, Nous (2021), premiered last year in the Encounters section of the Berlinale, French filmmaker Alice Diop has just made her entrance into the A-league of cinema auteurs. Her fiction film debut, Saint Omer (2022), was the recipient of both the Opera Prima “Luigi De Laurentiis” award, as well as the Jury Grand Prix of the Venice film festival, where it screened in competition (an inspired decision of the Mostra’s director, Alberto Barbera, which should be congratulated.)

Of course, it is not an award that renders a film valuable, but in this case, they represent the recognition of an original voice, of a fresh gaze, of a style of directing that works with long durations, with many silenes, with slow accumulations of contradictory states, which need time to fully reveal their emotional force, and with some of the most seductive ideas one can think of.

Saint Omer is influenced by Alice Diop’s documentary perspective. It’s most visible in the few long sequences, shot in few frames, but abundant in moments in which cinematic time overlaps with real-time (and the natural light changes under our very eyes), in a criminal court in the town of Saint-Omer, where the case of a young woman of African origin, who stands accused of murdering her months-old baby, is being judged. The woman admits her guilt but prescribes it to her bad overall state (a clandestine relationship with the child’s father, a much older French man, and her complicated relations with her divorced parents) and to the fact that she’d supposedly been cursed by a wicked spell.

European illuminism, as represented by the rules of the legal system that was developed across several centuries, is confronted with another civilization, with foreign traditions, and it is here that the film unfolds its greatest ambition: to what degree can rational thought understand and judge the irrational, the mystery of human pulsions, along with the social and cultural determinants that can push someone to commit a reprehensible act?

The trial is followed by the film’s protagonist, Rama (Kayje Kagame), a writer and literature professor who wants to pen a book about the case, which she regards as a modern, timely version of the myth of Medea. She is also part of a family that has African origins and has a difficult relationship with her mother (who had the fracturing experience of having to leave her native country and move to France), while also preparing to become a mother herself. The case of the young criminal mother troubles Rama deeply, and turns into a prime occasion for her to also question her multiple identities: that of a daughter to African immigrants who have to struggle with prejudice, of an intellectual with a social status that most people like her cannot obtain, of a frightened future mother who is haunted by the difficulties that her mother endured in life (Rama has frequent flashbacks of her childhood).

But all of this has nothing declarative or obvious to it – the film goes forward with small steps, with a discreet, constantly surprising style of direction, and through fragments of information and details that Alice Diop sprinkles across every sequence, inviting us to patiently pick them up while gazing intently and curiously.

“Saint Omer”

A director who people call “Mister Panahi”, performed by Jafar Panahi himself, takes up a room in a modest boarding house in the North of Iran, close to the border with Turkey. His pretext is that he wants to live closer to the location where they will shoot part of the film that he is working on now – the love story of a Teheran couple that tries to obtain false passports in order to leave the country clandestinely.

During Panahi’s stay in this god-forsaken village, in Teheran, his assistant is shooting another fragment of the same film, set in the capital, based on the indications and the remote coordination of the director himself, when he’s capable of catching a little bit of Internet signal.

“Mister Panahi’s” stay in the village, in the house of a man who lives with his mother, a friendly old woman who prepares meals for her guest, isn’t well regarded by the locals, who are afraid that the director, who they know cannot leave the country, could indeed cross the border and thus compromise the community’s good image.

Although it remains unspoken, we realize that the director is not allowed to shoot – both through the fact that he directs his assistant and actors from his laptop, as well as through a deliciously funny sequence when he asks his host, a mere farmer who doesn’t know much about technology, to shoot a local ceremony for him (an occasion for the many discussions in the film on what is and isn’t cinema, and on who can and cannot make cinema, which the film raises with ease).

Quite obviously, all of these situations refer to the situation of Jafar Panahi himself, which has been banned from filmmaking and from leaving the country by the Iranian government for many years (and he was even recently arrested after he inquired about the fate of a colleague of his, the famous filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was imprisoned together with another director, Mostafa Aleahmad).

Ever since these absurd limitations have been imposed on him by the authoritarian regime in Iran, Panahi’s artistic preoccupations have shifted – and he has turned his own situation, that of a filmmaker that is not allowed to film, into the prime narrative matter of his films, created despite the official ban and then sent in secret to the big international festivals.

This is how extraordinary works such as This is Not a Film (2011), Taxi (2015, awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale), or this latest offering, No Bears, winner of the Jury Special Award at this year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival, and perhaps even his strongest work, came to be.

“No Bears”

What is fascinating about No Bears is that Jafar Panahi never self-pities himself and doesn’t transform his problems into the topic of a hermetically-sealed film, which thus has no space to breathe due to its self-referential nature. 

On the contrary, by acting as himself, the Iranian filmmaker opens himself up to others, on the one hand, and on the other, he directly and bluntly questions the dramatic effects that both the production of a film on a sensitive topic and his status of a public person that conflicts with the authorities, may have an effect on the ones around him, be it simple people or the members of his crew.

His presence in the village turns into a good occasion to sketch the portrait of a rural community, with its traditions, superstitions, meanness, and generosity but is also simultaneously a disruptive element, which upends the village’s tranquility. Shooting a film about a couple that wants to flee the country illegally, inspired by the real lives of the actors who are performing in it, proves to be much too disturbing for them. 

In that precise moment, the dizzying, savorous meta-cinematic games played by Panahi turn into a troubling reflection both on his status as an artist who is willing to explore his obsessions to the very end, no matter the cost, as well as on the mysterious ways in which reality infiltrates itself into art, while art itself overwhelms reality.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.