Solemn, quiet film ‘Petit Samedi’ wraps up True/False

This short Belgian feature film employs a still camera and a limited setting to create emotional depth.

“Petit Samedi,” one of the lesser-known films screened at True/False Film Fest, has been billed by IMDb and others as a film about addiction.

Maybe this quaint, short (75-minute) Belgian documentary is misunderstood. Though the main character, Damien Samedi, is a heroin addict, “Petit Samedi” isn’t about his addiction. It’s a brilliant, emotional depiction of unconditional love.

Director Paloma Sermon-Daï, Damien’s sister, captures a slice of her family’s life in “Petit Samedi.” Damien, 42, feels that he has no direction or motivation. He can’t find employment, and instead works odd jobs for a living. He spends most of his days at his mother’s house. Moreover, he’s addicted to smoking heroin, and can’t remember the last day he didn’t use it.

Ysma, his mother, is worried for her son. There’s a constant undercurrent of tension between the two of them, which manifests itself in little arguments and snappy comments. But Ysma isn’t cruel — she desperately wants Damien to be happy, and sometimes her worry boils over into anger.

“Petit Samedi” chronicles their mother-son relationship as Damien goes to addiction counseling for the first time. The film is not a journey, as Damien’s addiction does not get better. Instead, it’s a still life. Sermon-Daï uses her camera to capture moments in time rather than progress or motion. Her style is quiet and tranquil.

As the film takes place almost entirely in Ysma’s house, it’s essential that the characters are comfortable enough with the filmmaker to be unaffected by the presence of cameras. Sermon-Daï’s familial relationship with the characters creates a certain warmth and charm in the interactions between Damien and Ysma that could not be replicated with a different director.

From beginning to end, the camera setup is the same. We as viewers become familiar with the house — the same locations are filmed from the same angle throughout. When Damien smokes, we repeatedly see the fumes waft up as we peer over his shoulder. When he enters his mother’s house, we watch him through the front window. The cameras create a feeling of “sameness” and monotony.

But “Petit Samedi” is far from boring. Sermon-Daï maintains this monotony so that she can purposefully disrupt it.

One night, Damien smokes too much and his perception of the world becomes warped. He stays out all night, and the audience worries for his safety as much as Ysma does, because we’re so used to him spending time at home. When Damien goes to therapy, he unleashes a barrage of emotions that contrast with the quiet, solemn tone of the rest of the film.

Though “Petit Samedi” is Sermon-Daï’s first feature-length film, it is breathtaking. The raw power of scenes where Ysma comforts Damien moved me to tears. It’s difficult to capture unfiltered emotion in a nonfiction film, but this documentary does it gracefully, with likeable characters and beautiful still shots.

“Petit Samedi” has been screened at multiple film festivals worldwide since 2020, but is not yet available for streaming.

Edited by Elise Mulligan | emulligan@themaneater.com

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