Ellie Foumbi on a Hell of a Homecoming in “Our Father, The Devil”

Ellie Foumbi didn’t know how “Our Father, The Devil” was going to end. There was a lot of uncertainty in general when the writer/director headed to the small mountainous village of Bagnères-de-Luchon in France with a largely American crew as the world was only starting to open back up from the COVID lockdown, but more specifically, she had created an enviable problem for herself, but a problem nonetheless when she didn’t know what could possibly be a satisfying resolution after conceiving two equally formidable adversaries in Marie (Babetida Sadjo), a Rwandan refugee who has found a quiet life for herself working at an assistant living facility after fleeing war, and Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane), the kindly pastor who comes to visit the residents at the nursing home that Marie starts to suspect might’ve remade himself after being one of the warlords that terrorized her village back home.

“There was something on the page that I [thought] I know this doesn’t quite work,” said Foumbi. “Once I started working with the actors, it did start to crystallize how we needed to wrap this up because it was really tricky. And we had it written by the time we got to set, but then I had no idea how the whole thing was going to play out. On one of our three rehearsal days, that’s the day that we really focused on that and tried to figure out how to make that blocking sing within the language that we had already built for the film. And I think it’s a miracle — all films are miracles, but this just came together so much better and so much more intensely than I expected.”

And you suspect what Foumbi had in mind in the first place was hardly tame from the rest of her ferocious feature debut, which leads to a confrontation in a cabin for much of its duration after Marie takes Father Patrick hostage, unsure if he’s the man she thinks he is and unsure of what else she could do given the horrific crimes the person she’s thinking of committed without punishment. As Marie goes about her days selflessly tending to the needs of others while returning in her off-hours for a sense of revenge, “Our Father, The Devil” tantalizes with the possibility that her captive has been up to the same thing, rendering any notions of heroes and villains hazy at best. But what does emerge clearly is a force to be reckoned with in Foumbi, who divines two powerhouse performances from Sadjo and Sy Savane and lets the electricity of their clash pulse through every element of the film where contrasts of all kinds can be found in each frame, honoring the complexities of the characters at its center.

After making its premiere in Venice, “Our Father, The Devil” has been unsettling audiences around the world and scaring up plenty of prizes from the Tribeca Film Festival where it picked up an audience award to Indie Memphis where it won Best Narrative Feature en route to a Spirit Award nomination and with the thriller now sweeping into theaters, Foumbi spoke about how she found her calling as a director after starting out as an actress, how the pair of actors she cast in her debut helped her find her way with this particular story and how the film was shaped by the testimony of real-life survivors of genocide.

You’ve got a background in acting, so was directing something that you always wanted to pursue or did a passion for it emerge from being on sets?

Initially I don’t think I thought I’d be a director, which is weird because I knew that I wanted to to tell stories and that eventually I would cycle out of acting. I don’t even know why directing didn’t occur to me because even as a writer, I was a very visual, but there’s something about that title that I didn’t feel I could own. Maybe it was imposter syndrome, maybe it was that I didn’t know any other directors and I come from a very traditional African family from a country that doesn’t have a huge cinema background, not like Senegal or South Africa. We don’t have a huge industry in Cameroon, which at the time was virtually maybe two or three people, so there wasn’t this feeling “Oh, I can make a living as a director.” But from the moment I decided to go to film school, something that was in my spirit because I knew I wanted to tell my own stories and given the opportunity to direct things, it just clicked. Of course I don’t want to just write the stories, but also build the visual language around them, so it happened very organically.

It looks to me like you are a natural at it, and I understand you were batting around a few different ideas for a feature, so what made this come to the fore?

I’m really happy that this was the first one because the initial film I was trying to get off the ground is a coming-of-age drama with some magical realism in it, and everything I’ve written since that first piece is either horror or thriller and I think that my wheelhouse is much more genre-bending, so it would feel awkward to introduce myself to the industry in a different way. But I’d started working on the other one [first] and came back to this because it felt like the characters started just living in my head at one point and this is a story that needs to be told.

From what I understand, this is rooted in interviews you conducted with survivors of genocide. Was there something specifically you heard there that may have helped shape this?

Yeah, just how difficult it is to start over and to get over such an event. I became really interested in what does survival mean? Because even if you’ve survived physically, you haven’t survived emotionally or psychologically. There’s so much that is stuck in the past. That’s the key thing that I got from a lot of these survivors, and I hadn’t really seen a film that addressed that in a way that I thought would be impactful. Most of the stories of child soldiers, particularly about the war, were almost [exclusively] about the conflict and recruitment and the violence and I wanted to tell a story that honors the difficulty of moving on and how someone is able to piece their life back together. That became an important mission for me because I wasn’t just doing it because I thought, “This will be a good movie.” I wanted to make something that I felt would make a difference, so this was my way of contributing to the cause and it was a film that I felt that mattered to me and that helped me persevere in the making of it.

There’s a central idea of duality in the film, both in having these characters opposite one another and what’s going on internally. Did that actually make this easier to write, thinking in those terms?

Everything has duality in it — that’s just life. You’re walking around, and just because you seem happy doesn’t mean you are. Everyone’s always carrying some kind of baggage, so it was a natural way to develop the characters, but what was tricky for me is that I haven’t gone through any of this personally, so I’m really using my imagination to fill in the blanks and also the conversations I’ve had with these survivors to approximate something that I feel like is truth. And kudos to my cast, because I was relying a lot on them to fill in those blanks as well. We had an amazing collaborative process and experience together, and I think that’s part of why it came together so well.

How’d you get these two incredible actors on board?

I’d actually seen Babetida first in a film called “Waste Land” by a Belgian director named Pieter Van Hees. We have a mutual friend in common who was in the film with her and I just saw a glimpse of her in a scene and there was something about her eyes were just absolutely magnetic. I was just was like, “I want to work with this woman someday.” At the time I didn’t yet have the story, but she was in my mind. And then I met Souleymane in 2015 [when] we were cast in a short film together. I was a fan of his from “Goodbye Solo,” a film he did with Ramin Bahrani, and I was surprised that he wasn’t doing more. I [thought], “God, he’s so talented. And I want to create a vehicle for him.” So I actually started building the role of Father Patrick for him specifically, but then remembered Babetida and thought the two of them might work really well together and luckily they did.

Once you start to work with them together, are there any unexpected directions this takes that you could be excited by?

Everything was unexpected. Part of our challenge in making this film during COVID was that no one was able to really meet in person until we got to set, so I went into shooting this with all these question marks, all these unknowns. And you can’t do a chemistry test over Zoom — there’s only so much you can tell in terms of what’s working, what’s not working, so I really went to France with a hope and a prayer that once these people were in a room together, it was gonna work. And I think my instincts were right about them in terms of the type of people they are and the energies that they brought. A lot of it was just discovering on set, which was exciting because I come from a theater background. One thing that’s always been exciting to me in theater is that everything happens fresh every night. Good performances are always different. So there was this little bit of excitement that I had going to set every day, not knowing exactly how the scenes were going to come together that day, but knowing that we had done the work and spent so much time building the backstories of those characters, especially for Babetida and Souleymane because they need to each have a very clear memory of what happened in the past, and they just showed up and they were present. Every day it was exciting to just sit by and watch.

As it is on screen — and it blew my mind when I heard it was that the cabin stuff was actually first. I was trying to decide whether this is the worst or the best thing to happen to set the tone for this kind of production.

It felt like it was the worst at the beginning because it was so daunting. I remember when I told the actors, they just went, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And I [told them], “Guys, I’m so sorry.” But that’s how we had to shoot it [because of the schedule] and it was challenging because the core of the film is in that cabin, so we were all [thinking], we hope we’re able to rise up to what that needs to be. But once we got through that first week, we had such confidence in what was left that it was nice to start with the hard stuff. I actually don’t think we would have been able to do those cabin scenes later in the [production] because we had such a small crew, working on a very grueling, tight schedule, so by the 15th, 16th, 17th day, I don’t know that the crew’s energy would have been where it needed to be to give those scenes justice. In a way, it was a blessing that we did those first.

There is a real muscularity to the camerawork as well, which is especially impressive in these tight spaces. What was it like to figure out how to make that dynamic?

Yeah, Tinx [Chan], my [director of photography] and I spent 10 days in that town a couple months before we shot and we really sat down and thought that through. We knew the spaces were tight and there’s not a lot of locations in the film, so we were thinking about how to be economical. Both he and I are fans of not moving the camera very much and really just kind of letting the actors do the heavy lifting. Because I am a horror/thriller fan, I know that you can build a lot of tension with very little camera movement and really just letting the blocking do the work for you, so we were thinking also a lot about how do we tell this story in as few setups as possible? I also wanted to streamline the editing of this film, so we really thought about how to use the spaces as smartly as possible and also to make them feel fresh because we’re in that cabin for a long time but we’re never in the same angle. Every scene is exploring a different side of the cabin, and that was very intentional on our part.

What’s it been like getting this film out into the world?

It’s been so gratifying, so surprising, so beautiful. It’s also been very cathartic because I’ve lived with it for so long. I started writing this movie in 2015, and even though I didn’t really come back to it until 2019, still it’s been in my soul. I could have never expected the reaction that I got. It’s in French, it’s a small budget and it’s a genre-bending film, so my expectations were so low, but I’m really touched and it’s given me hope, honestly, for the future of cinema that a simple, well-made film can still find some traction on the festival circuit and then somehow end up with an Indie Spirit nomination, which is insane. It’s given me a lot of hope for the next projects that are coming and I’m excited to make.

“Our Father, The Devil” opens on August 25th in New York at the Quad Cinema and on September 1st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.

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