Véro Tshanda Beya in Félicité, 2017. Images courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Hailing from the land of Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Ousmane Sembène, the founding fathers of Black African cinema, Alain Gomis has almost single-handedly maintained Senegal’s standing as an essential point on the map of global cinema over the last decade. His fourth feature, Félicité, won both the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival as well as the Etalon d’Or (Gomis’ second time winning the most prestigious African film prize) before appearing in the Main Slate at the New York Film Festival earlier this month. Imparting nourishment for all five senses while also sobering in its impact, Félicité charts several days in the life of its namesake, a nightclub singer who needs to scrounge together a hefty sum to rehabilitate her son after a brutal motorcycle accident. Its polyphonous texture manages to lift this simple story into something approaching a symphony.
Joseph Pomp The first scene of the film is packed with so much observation of the diverse crowd at the Kinshasa bar where Félicité sings. There seems to be such great camaraderie even amongst folks that seem like strangers. How did you meet these people, and was it difficult to get them to allow you to film them? I’m wondering, too, if it was something about the people you met in Kinshasa that made you want to make a film there in the first place.
Alain Gomis The musical collective Kasai Allstars has four different bands, and one of them played regularly at the place where we filmed. I really liked that space. It’s in an incredible neighborhood called Matongé, which has a ton of bars—the streets are just lined with places playing music, many live. Really great music. I don’t know a lot of neighborhoods like that in the world. It’s not the same in Dakar, which is in a Muslim country. I really wanted to shoot in this area because it was important to me that the locations were authentic, not reconstructions. The goal was to build scenes within real life. So we shot in that bar, called L’ouragan [The Hurricane]. At first, the problem was just one of sound, because it was really noisy on the street. So, to get the neighboring bars to turn their music down, we struck a deal: In exchange for lowering their volume, we’d hire some of their clientele to appear in the film. Which definitely seemed fair, because they really wanted to be in it. Maybe even too much. But in the end you mostly see people who were regulars at the bar, which is important. I may have said “Action!” and “Cut!”, but there’s no discontinuity between the film and real life. This was a guiding principle in whom we filmed in all the locations, whether in the bar or in the hospital. There would be an actor or two who had lines, and then others who could intervene. So it was a mix of fiction and reality.
JP Was Véro Tshanda Beya, who plays Félicité, actually a singer in one of these bars?
AG No, not at all. She wasn’t working at the time, she was figuring out what to do. I think a friend of hers had just told her about the audition and said to give it a shot. I think she really just needed something big to happen. She showed up in a lot of makeup. I said to myself that she wasn’t really right for the part, but that I’d do a screen test anyway, maybe for a smaller role like one of the nurses. Then I saw she had this rare force, and I asked her to come back, without all the makeup. And she kept coming back, and I kept thinking she was too pretty, too young. I wanted someone frail. But each time I saw her, I was taken aback. It’s like she hijacked the film. (laughter)
JP How did you decide to work in Kinshasa in the first place? It’s fairly far from home for you, with a different language.
AG I didn’t have any connections there, except through music. Initially, the characters and situations I was working on could have been in Senegal, or South Africa—where I wanted to work because of the forests—but there wasn’t this music, which is an incredible mix of something very urban and something more traditional, related to cosmogony and these powerful things. It’s in this music that I find life as I see and feel it. So I gravitated toward Kinshasa in this way. I got in touch with Dieudo Hamadi, who makes documentaries, who told me to contact his friend Roger, who would take me all over. So I came, and we spent months and months roaming the city and discussing the screenplay. During this time, I finished writing it and assembling the crew. This was important: half the crew was Congolese, the other half was Senegalese. Having people on the team who lived in the neighborhoods where we were shooting made the process a lot easier. We weren’t just a crew that came from abroad and tried to integrate itself into the city; it’s a Congolese film, in a certain sense.
JP One of the only non-African crew members was your cinematographer, Céline Bozon. The feeling of being truly immersed in the city is very palpable in the film. The use of handheld camera is magnificent, especially in travelling shots through busy intersections, where the camera floats along with the stream and the speed of everyday life.
AG With Céline, it was a professional match made in heaven. She’s fearless and is one hundred percent absorbed in the act of filming. We asked ourselves a lot of questions about how to represent Kinshasa, and realized what we had to do was to not make images or representations, but to be as direct as possible about what it made us feel right away.
JP You’re aren’t concerned with representing people in the societal roles they’ve been ascribed so much as in terms of their bodies, their breath, their beating hearts. Another fixation, both in Félicité and Tey (Today, 2012), is the most primal human emotion: the fear of mortality.
AG Yes! That’s the cinema for me: the fact that a woman on the other side of the planet who has nothing to do with me could be making a film that will intensely resonate with me because it is still about my own innermost thoughts. That’s totally what we try to accomplish. Céline is completely dedicated to this, and helped me progress in this direction. Making films for me is a way to try to move forward. So I gravitate toward places that call my life into question somehow, areas that intrigue me that I can plunge into with other people and ask, what do we do here?
JP Was there any language barrier working in Kinshasa? Did you have to keep some of the film in French for reasons of either convenience or financing schemes?
AG No, the film is one hundred percent in Lingala. You’re right, there are some French words in the language. But I made a conscious choice: I could have gotten a much bigger grant from the Centre national du cinéma [administered by the French government] if fifty percent of the dialogue was in French. But it was essential that the characters spoke to each other in the language they’d use normally with one another.
JP There still really is not the infrastructure for African films to be distributed and seen across the continent. You seem to be reaching for opportunities to build bridges, by using film funds based in Senegal and Gabon to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
AG We’ve been making a big effort to show the film wherever we can in Africa, even if it’s only for one screening. We were in Nigeria, the Congo, of course, as well as Senegal, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Africa. Bringing the film to FESPACO [the Pan-African Film Fetsival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso] wasn’t to win prizes, but audiences. It’s so important that the film’s primary audience be Africans. The film distribution networks may have died, but they’re now slowly being reborn. There’s an incredible desire for cinema in Africa, because cinema is like a dialogue one has within oneself. A film is always an attempt, nothing more, and that allows for a sort of dialogue. The function of art is not to say, “This is the way things are,” but rather to participate in society’s reflection upon itself, and we need this type of reflection. People need to be able to see themselves onscreen and say, “That resembles me,” or “That doesn’t.” That exchange is a part of our own self-conception, and it’s why cinema is important, in all its forms. What does a hero look like in Africa today? Someone who tries. There’s an emerging diversity of African films: sci-fi, gangster pictures… The big problem is the lack of an efficient infrastructure, and of movie theaters that can show these films. I think that will all come, but there’s one key thing right now: Is cinema going to become entertainment for the middle class, or will the masses have access to it and be able to contribute to its shape? That’s the real question at this point.
Translated from the French by the author.
Félicité opens at the Quad in New York City on Friday, October 27.