Student News

Students Meet Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Alice Diop

Bennington College visiting faculty member Maboula Soumahoro recently offered the opportunity for twenty Bennington College students to join those at Columbia University in New York City for an exclusive question-and-answer session with Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Alice Diop.

The conversation took place on April 8, 2023, around an event Soumahoro, who also teaches at Columbia, had planned with Diop.

“I wanted to organize a private conversation between my Columbia students [and Diop],” said Soumahoro. “I just didn't want the Bennington students to miss that opportunity.” 

Diop and the students discussed her latest film and her first narrative feature, Saint Omer. The film is inspired by Diop’s own experience of having witnessed a trial for a 2013 infanticide. The hauntingly quiet courtroom drama draws on the myth of Medea and tackles the themes of motherhood, daughterhood, and race. 

The experience, overall, was one of the most memorable moments of my college experience,” said Cass Williams '25, who performs as an actor. "[Diop] talked about her approach to the film and how relatable the main character is to all women." 

The story is very difficult and sensitive, especially with a nearly all female cast. Williams described how important Diop found it to swap out the word “trauma” for “uncomfortable places” when speaking about the film with both the cast and the students. 

With the change in vocabulary and mindset, Williams explained, “[Diop and the cast] were all able to reach these ‘uncomfortable places’ together in order to give birth to Saint Omer.”

Image of two people seated and a standing translator
Left to right, translator Nicholas Elliott ’94, Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Alice Diop, and Bennington College visiting faculty member Maboula Soumahoro.
Image of group of people
At center, left to right, Bennington College visiting faculty member Maboula Soumahoro, Oscar-Nominated filmmaker Alice Diop, and translator Nicholas Elliott ’94 surrounded by students from Bennington College.
Image of Q&A session
Students from Bennington College and Columbia University have a question-and-answer session with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Alice Diop.

Saint Omer premiered at Venice, winning the Silver Lion Grand Jury prize and Luigi De Laurentis First Film Award. According to the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, it is an "intellectually charged, emotionally wrenching story about the inability of storytelling—literary, legal or cinematic—to do justice to the violence and strangeness of human experience."

In the fall of 2022, France’s Centre National du Cinema chose Saint Omer to be the country’s Oscars contender for Best International Film. Diop is the first black woman ever to represent France at the Oscars.

“[Diop] is somebody who is extremely eloquent, and her cinematography is filled with visual art  but also literature references,” said Noëlle Rouxel-Cubberly, a faculty member who teaches French language and culture and who accompanied students on the trip. “[Diop] is somebody to whom the word is very important. Each single word that she uses encapsulates a wealth of comment on her own work and also her vision on the world, [especially] in terms of race.” 

Rouxel-Cubberly and Stephen Shapiro first invited Alice Diop in 2019 and have taught her films in their French classes ever since. Next term, Rouxel-Cubberly will offer an advanced-level course, Le cinéma-monde d’Alice Diop in the Fall.

Diop spoke in French. By chance, her interpreter, Nicholas Elliott, is a Bennington alum from the class of 1994. 

Diop is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants to France. She studied African colonial history at the Sorbonne, visual sociology at the University of Évry, and documentary filmmaking at Paris’s La Fémis. Diop’s previous films—including La Tour du Monde (2005), La Mort de Danton (2011), La Permanence (2016), Vers la Tendresse (2016), and Nous (2020)—are documentaries about contemporary French society. They often address issues affecting marginalized populations. 

Rouxel-Cubberly, in addition to faculty member Yoko Inoue, helped organize and accompanied students on the trip. It was made possible with generous support from colleagues in the Provost’s Office; the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Student Life; and both the Cultural Studies and Language and French Departments. 

“I'm really glad that it could happen,” Soumahoro said. “And it was one of those exceptional encounters.