HKIFF Hidden Gem: 'Felicite' Director Alain Gomis on Being Inspired by Strong Women

Felicite - Still 1- H 2017
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Featuring a moving performance by Vero Tshanda Beya, the French director's Africa-set festival darling was shortlisted for a best foreign-language film Oscar this year.

Born in Paris to a Gallic mother and Senegalese father, writer-director Alain Gomis has always had one foot in France and one in Africa. His debut film, L’afrance (2001), dealt with the plight of an illegal immigrant from Senegal scraping by in the City of Light, while 2013’s Aujourd’hui featured Slam star Saul Williams as a man living the last day of his life in Dakar. For Felicite, Gomis worked for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), composing a feverish tale of song and survival on the streets of Kinshasa.

Felicite, which won the Silver Bear at last year's Berlin International Film Festival and was one of nine films shortlisted for the best foreign-language film prize at this year's Oscars, is being screened at Hong Kong International Film Festival. Gomis spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the experience, as well as what it’s been like to finally make a breakthrough in the U.S.

Were you surprised when Felicite was among the nine movies shortlisted for the best foreign-language film at the Oscars?

Yes and no. … On one hand, Felicite is a small film and we definitely don’t have the same means to campaign for an Oscar as everyone else. But on the other hand, I’ve always been persuaded that my films would be able to touch people outside of France or the countries where they were shot, because as a viewer you can really project yourself into any character or place. So why not into the story of a singer in Kinshasa?

What originally drove you to make the film?

The script was inspired by a kind of woman I’ve encountered many times in Senegal — a woman who’s strong and extremely resistant to the forces around her. Then, almost by accident, we switched the setting to Kinshasa when I saw videos of the Kasai Allstars performing there. The lead singer reminded me exactly of the character I was thinking of, and even if she doesn’t play Felicite in the film, I decided it would be better to shoot in the DRC. At that point, the project took on another dimension.

Kinshasa is really a character in and of itself in the movie.

The city has practically no infrastructure, which means you constantly have to fend for yourself. Such a setting perfectly fit the story, because Felicite cannot rely on the government or anyone else to help her: She can either fight for what she needs or lie down and accept her situation. In a place like Kinshasa, you’re always facing your limits as an individual; it’s a powerful way of questioning the human condition.

How did you cast and then work with Vero Tshanda Beya, who gives such a moving performance in the film?

I initially tried to cast the lead with different theatrical troupes, but then I came across Vero — who had no prior acting experience — and was really blown away by her force and conviction. I met with her several times because she didn’t fit the character I had in mind, but her power was undeniable and she wound up imposing herself on the film. On set, we worked off the screenplay but then freely improvised a number of scenes, with Vero and the rest of the cast contributing to the dialogue.

The other main character in Felicite is all the live music that accompanies the story.

There was always this idea to confront two different types of music in the movie, but at the script stage I didn’t really know how that would happen. I already knew the film would feature the Kasai Allstars, who led me to Kinshasa in the first place, but it was only when I started location scouting there that I came across the Symphonic Orchestra. And so I quickly integrated them into the story as well, with music playing an even bigger role in the narrative than I had initially planned.

Is your next film going to be set in Africa or in France?

I’m actually working on two projects right now. One of them takes place in Kinshasa, because there is still so much I want to explore about the city, including working again with local actors. The other is set in a completely different place and time: New York in the 1950s.