Tiana chatted with director Alain Gomis about his film Félicité which was in competition at the Sydney Film Festival.
Where did you gain inspiration for Félicité, what events/circumstances influenced you?
I’m from Senegal and France, and I was inspired by some woman who was from my family in Senegal and was a strong character like Félicité- the kind of woman that had to fight everyday. In this difficult context, it is always women that are fighting and make life possible in the daily life. So I wanted to because for my first few movies, they were about men and this time I wanted to keep a homage to this kind of woman that I admire.
At the beginning I was working on a film in Senegal, in the south of Senegal and I had this nephew who got in this accident and I will always remember his eyes after his accident. It was like his life was finished at this point after his leg was injured and he was young.
I also wanted to make a film in this kind of neighbourhood because I come from this kind of neighbourhood and I wanted to talk about the dignity of these people who are the real. In television you only see 5% of the population in Senegal and I wanted to show the real life of the real people and talk about this dignity to make them heroes. In fact, when you come from this kind of place, you look at the TV or you see the films, at some point you can believe that your life isn’t worth it, it’s kind of a pressure on your own imagination and how you respect yourself and I instead wanted to put them [the people] back into the middle, in the centre.
Then I saw a video of this singer of the Kasai Allstars. I’ve been listening to this music for a long time and I had never seen the video but when I saw the video I had the feeling of hearing the voice of the character I was writing about at the time. So the possibility to make this film in Kinshasa came up.
Can you elaborate on how it was filming in Kinshasa and how it was like on set in such a chaotic city?
Yeah, it was one possibility for me to make a film in a big African city and to put in on the map of cinema. It is an amazing city but also very paradoxical. It is a very tough city where very simple things can become very complicated but the contrary is true also. It is the only city in Africa where you can find a symphonic orchestra. When you are in Kinshasa, you can’t imagine for one second meeting an orchestra like this one. So I made this film there and that was a big part of this project.
What was your intention behind Félicité?
One of the characters says “We are beautiful. We are dignified people, we are more beautiful than the heroes.” I just needed to say that and say that to the people, to the world and also to the people I was working with and to my family. It is also a way to deal with life. For me, making films helped me to live and living helped me to do films. (laughs). They go together. Films are highly political and highly spiritual so it’s also a way to try to find meaning.
You know, you have a feeling of what you live, what you see and it’s representations through media, through TV, through cinema. For me, it (the representation) was not okay. There’s something that is missing. I hope that people when they see this film, they see themselves and see how beautiful they are and that they should love themselves. You know, for maybe 90% of the world they are unsatisfied with themselves and are living with this dynamic of coming out of their getaway while also trying to reach another world that doesn’t exist and exists only in films. So for me, as a director, one of my goals, one of missions, what I tried to do, is just to put reality back and to put the truth back where it is. It is to say “this is our lives and we can’t be ashamed of it. This is just not possible and produces too much violence against ourselves.” That was my main concern – this is the real life and you can’t put everybody and make them feel that what they live is not the true life. This is the true life but then you can try to make it better. But first, we have to accept what we are and be proud of what we are. We can in fact do it. This is difficult but we do it everyday.
Talking about the way I filmed it, first of all when I came to Kinshasa for the first time I was like “Wow, how am I going to film this?.” The city is so difficult that one of my main concerns was about trying to show this without creating any sense of refusal (to the reality). Rather I wanted to reject this image. Finally, the solution was not trying to make it beautiful but rather just make it true. We decided to film the most direct way possible and to be confident with our feelings and the fact that this is a feature where we have 2 hours.
I wanted to have the sensation I had there, which was at the beginning, the sense that the city was tough, but day after day you start to see the beauty of the city and of the people. I wanted the viewer to have that same kind of relationship. Just to be here, just to be honest and then you will see. So when filming we just had to be there, we just had to be open.
Was this the same when you went about casting and how you worked with your actors on set?
So first of all when casting, I went to see all the theatrical troops that would like to meet and then after I started the casting, which was open to total non-actors, I met Véronique Beya Mputu who plays Félicité. I think that was her first time as an actress and I think a friend of hers told her to just try and come for the audition. So she came and I saw a young woman with a lot of makeup.
For me she was totally not Félicité and so we had a little test, improvisation and she was so good from the beginning, with such an including force, I knew she absolutely had something special. Her strength was in transforming every situation in a very concrete way – everything was real, powerful and real. So we had 6 months of different Félicité’s and at the end I had to admit that she was Félicité, even if she was very different from what I was expecting in the beginning – she was taller, she was bigger, she was younger. But she gave to the part the kind of modernity that the character didn’t have before. She also proposed many new things. It was cool for me to be, for the first time, to follow and to be behind her.
You challenge your audience, whether this be the unconventional structure of the film, which changes trajectory midway through, or the slow pace of the film. For you, why was it important for you to do so?
Because when you do this kind of story, the question can be, will she and her son be able to get out of this situation in the context. First of all, I wanted to make a film with a kind of a hope but I did not want to make a film that was just based on the as per say, sunny side of the street. What I wanted to say was okay, life hurts sometimes and really hard, so let’s explore it and have this character that is falling down and then possibly comes back up again.
For me, film is about sensations. It’s not about trying to tell from the outside. So I wanted to have in the second part, something that’s not really about companionship but more about trying to make the journey with her even though sometimes you don’t understand. Rather you can get the sensation of this journey through her hell at certain times and in certain ways.
For me it was important to find a way, a different way in cinema, of telling stories. This was not about telling stories but leaving stories and to be really in the inside so it was important to find an organic way to organize this film, which I felt was more close from the music than from the literature. I’m still trying to find this but for me the cinema is not on the screen but it is in the heads, in the spirit of the one who is watching it. So yes, I’m trying different things, trying to find this way to make this cinema different and to have what you can’t reach with a normal way of telling stories.
In relation to this, what films or filmmakers influenced you in your youth or you drew inspiration from for Félicité?
A lot. (laughs). All that I hear and I see is influencing me. I don’t know exactly for this one but maybe the work of Jean Vigo who is a French director. Maybe Jensen … I don’t know, there has been a lot (laughs).
Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you would like to share?
Not now. You know my process of work is a little bit of a big mess. So I have notes everywhere and after some months it becomes a film but for the moment I don’t even know what it is, it’s just like everywhere. (laughs).
ALAIN GOMIS is a Franco-Bissau Guinean-Senegalese director. His first feature film, L’Afrance (2001, SFF 2002), won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. Tey (2012), starring Saul Williams, was selected for competition at Berlin and won the Golden Stallion at FESPACO in 2013. Gomis also works on a training program for young filmmakers and technicians in Senegal. Félicité is his fourth feature-length film.