In Ellie Foumbi’s elegant debut feature length film, Our Father, the Devil, a young woman, Marie Cissé (played by the formidable Belgian-Guinea Bissau actress Babetida Sadjo) is living a quiet, anonymous life in a small French town.
A war survivor from her country of birth, Marie has been opportune to start a new life in France where she works as a chef in an elderly care home. A chance encounter with Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané), the catholic priest newly transferred to the town, instigates a crisis of conscience within Marie. She instantly recognises him as the warlord responsible for murdering her family.
Father Patrick’s appearance throws Marie’s carefully curated new life off balance and sends her on a downward spiral. The film, which won the audience award at the Tribeca Festival in June, is a poignant rumination on trauma and forgiveness.
According to Foumbi, who was born in Cameroon, moved to the US with her parents at the age of five and studied directing at Columbia University, her father’s work at the UN in New York served as inspiration for this film.
Through a colleague of her father, Foumbi got some access to some survivors of the Rwandan genocide and was profoundly affected by the stories she heard. She tells The Africa Report: “I was really interested in the aftermath of the civil war, but I was more interested in the kids that were perpetuating the violence. Who those children became as adults, how they rebuilt their lives. That is how the film took on its own life. There was this vicious cycle of violence we wanted to explore very deeply through the perspective of a woman.”
Our Father, the Devil was produced as part of the Biennale di Venezia’s College Cinema initiative and presented at the Venice film festival last year. The programme that supports emerging filmmakers with the production and technical capacity to make their film under a certain budget, usually capped at $150,000. To make this work, Foumbi who had a handful of short films to her name, reached out to some of her usual collaborators.
She says: “My immediate thought was to bring in my frequent collaborators, people I had already built relationships with. My cinematographer and editor know my style so much. There are certain things that we didn’t even need to communicate. For a first feature, and under these conditions, having these kinds of partners was critical.”
Shooting in a Francophone country
The first draft of the screenplay, which Foumbi wrote in 2015, was set in the US, but something about it wasn’t working. The characters were French-speaking so culturally there was a gap that could distract one from the story. Foumbi put the script down for a few years and moved on to other projects.
She picked it up again four years later and shifted the setting from the US to the south of France. It was only then that the story began to fall into place. Foumbi talks about the practicalities saying: “I had shot [the play] in France before so that wasn’t scary to me. It felt like the right thing for the story, and this was only possible through the support of the Biennale College. I am not sure how the film would have been made otherwise.”
In just a few short seconds of seeing her onscreen, I saw something in her face and eyes that made me feel like this is somebody I have to work with.
Foumbi says perhaps deep in her subconscious, she wrote the role of Marie, a complex and complicated character with Babetida Sadjo in mind, even though she didn’t know this at the time. What she knew was that it would be a challenge to find the right actress to fully inhabit the role and no one came to mind easily. She had encountered Sadjo’s work in the Belgian independent film Waste Land, which was released in 2014, and was immediately glued to Sadjo’s intensity. She says: “In just a few short seconds of seeing her onscreen, I saw something in her face and eyes that made me feel like this is somebody I have to work with.”
‘It felt like fate’
Foumbi wasn’t ready to connect though; she reached out through a mutual friend, only about four years later. She describes Sadjo as her most important collaborator for the project. “I pitched [to] her the story and I could see the emotional response. It felt like [it was] fate, and I was excited that she said yes. We sort of started monthly conversations around the character from that moment on, which helped the story develop as well as it did. Her instincts as an actress are so singular and strong that she helped me elevate the story.”
Even though she had first encountered the screenplay some time in 2019, Sadjo joined the film – officially – about two weeks before principal photography began. However, she needed to completely understand where Foumbi was coming from when she conceived the story.
With only two weeks to dive into character, Sadjo insisted on nightly check-ins with her director, Founbi. Sadjo says: “I wanted to catch this emotion, this truth and give it to the audience so they can feel what it means to survive a war, to be abused, to be homeless, to lose everything and be torn from your motherland. Marie’s story is that of a woman struggling through her trauma and for me it was more than a performance. I really wanted the audience to watch a human being.”
Questions being asked
Our Father, the Devil asks plenty from its lead character – and actress – as she faces her demons and confronts her own complicity in the larger scheme of things. Sadjo’s Marie has some stimulating scenes where she engages with Savané’s Father Patrick and they converse like equals, each probing the repercussions of the conflict on their lives. It is rare to see African characters in a film dealing with similar themes engage on such an intellectual level.
“I have yearned to see two African characters have this rapport on screen, especially between a Black woman and man. To have these two people who are dealing with their trauma in different ways be able to confront each other about that trauma… It felt like an opportunity to begin a healing process and so I needed them to meet each other at the same level,” says Foumi.
I made this film for my people. This is something that I think is in my DNA because of my father’s work…
As an actor, Sadjo was only too excited to dive into these exchanges. She points out that because of the visual nature of film, plenty has to be sacrificed to capture the cinematic experience. She says: “[…] talking is actually […] very African and it is a pity that we don’t see it in films because they want us always to be emotional, but without the associated intellect. In my country when there is a problem we sit and talk. I wanted his character to tell her what he did to her because then it isn’t just a feeling, it is also being able to [verbalise] what happened to you and in that way, it is real.”
After turns in Venice and Tribeca, Foumbi is thrilled about the opportunity to be able to take Our Father, the Devil around the festival circuit. She is humbled by the range of emotions that her little film, set in a specific culture, has elicited among people in different parts of the world and sums up her reason for creating as a sum total of her background and experiences, “I made this film for my people. This is something that I think is in my DNA because of my father’s work and because I want to be in my own way, part of the healing process for my people.”