Senegal's Oscar Entry 'Felicite' Spins a Tale of Song, Survival and "Facing Your Limits" in Africa

Felicite Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Celine Bozo/Strand Releasing

Alain Gomis' film offers a raw look at a single mother whose passion for music helps her endure the harsh realities of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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 2001 debut, L'Afrance, dealt with the plight of an illegal immigrant from Senegal scraping by in the City of Light, while 2013's Aujourd'hui centered on 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, composing a feverish tale of song and survival on the streets of Kinshasa.

Loosely scripted and loaded with energy, the film — Senegal's first-ever Oscar foreign-language submission — is a raw and realistic portrait of a singer (Vero Tshanda Beya) trying to make ends meet while caring for her teen son who was recently injured in a motorcycle accident.

Were you surprised that Felicite was shortlisted?

Yes and no. On the 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 [local band] 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.

Kinshasa is also a character in the film.

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.

Along with Felicite, another key character is the live music accompanying 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 [Kinshasa] Symphony Orchestra. So I quickly integrated them into the story as well, with music playing an even bigger role than I had initially planned.

Will you set your next film in Africa or in France?

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

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.