I had the pleasure of meeting Ellie Foumbi as a fellow member of the Narrative Feature jury for the Heartland Film Festival, along with actor and director Joanna Gleason. It was such an honor for me to be on a jury with such talented women. When I heard they both had directed their own films, I knew I had to see them. Ellie’s film, “Our Father, The Devil,” had already been in theaters, and I kept hearing so much positive buzz about it, so I knew I had to see it.
Sometimes films open your mind to people and places that you are not familiar with. The story in Ellie’s film is about a woman named Marie Cissé (Babetida Sadjo) who works as a chef at a retirement home in a beautiful small town in Southern France. She seems content with her life, but when an African priest, Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savané), visits the home, we see she has a past that is very dark, and it somehow involves the priest. The film is carried by the face and performance of Sadjo, which cinematographer Tinx Chan lenses so well under Ellie’s direction. This film will move your soul and shake you to the core. I was so happy to have the opportunity to speak with Ellie about her directorial debut, which premiered at Venice Film Festival in 2021.
What was the inspiration for this film?
While growing up, films had always been a form of therapy for me. I moved to the states at a young age and French is my first language. It’s one thing to move to another country, but it’s another to not be able to communicate and speak the language. I was only five years old, but it still really marked me, and sometimes it made me feel like an outsider. In general, there is something about cinema that just made me feel safe, like a safety blanket. I always thought of films as a mode of healing, and a mode of helping bring people together. This was something that I wasn’t necessarily aware of when I started writing and making films, but I do think deep down that I am making films to try to help us understand each other better.
Part of me was really influenced by my Dad’s work in the UN and what he was doing there. Through his work, I got exposed to other issues occurring around the world. I became really curious and interested in post-war trauma and how people heal from that. How is it possible to actually lead any semblance of a normal life after you’ve gone through this kind of experience? This curiosity took me down a rabbit hole of child soldiers, because for me, that topic is so difficult because all children are innocent. In these cases of child soldiers, you see them committing these atrocities out of survival, and I would say that is true in all cases. Is it possible for these children to find redemption after they’ve committed crimes that are unforgivable?
All the films about child soldiers have been made during the conflict, and you’re watching the gruesome recruitment. But we don’t ever know what happens to these kids. Who do they become as adults? I wanted to write about that from the woman’s perspective. I wanted to explore all the layers of her sexual trauma as well as the guilt and the burden that she is carrying with her.
Because I feel like as an immigrant, but also in general, in life, when you meet people, you just don’t know what people are carrying. You don’t know what scars they have and what wounds they are nursing. You don’t ever really know somebody. When I was thinking about how to build the story, I liked this idea of being introduced to this woman, and slowly peeling back the layers of who she is.
How did you find Babetida for Marie, and can you talk about your process of building this character with her?
I discovered Babetida before I started working on this story. We have a mutual friend in common, and they were in a Belgian film together in 2014 called “Waste Land.” I had seen a glimpse of her in the trailer of the film, and I was absolutely transfixed by her face. When I started writing the story almost a year later, I was seeing her face in the role, even though I didn’t really know her. I just had this gut feeling inside that she was meant to play Marie. Her eyes and her face are incredible. I was bewitched by her. Back in 2014, my friend said she was happy to make an introduction, but at that time, I was only in my second year of film school and I didn’t have anything to show her yet.
Four years later, when I had written this treatment of the story, I said to my friend, “Okay, I’m ready to meet her.” Babetida lives in Belgium, so we met on zoom. It was just a magical connection. She said yes right away and I was very touched. And then when we began working together, it was so natural. I like to work a lot on backstory, and I think for this film because so much has happened in the past that is not really shown, because I chose to not have flashbacks, we really needed to excavate it all in the performances.
I appreciated that.
Thank you. I just think it makes it stronger, and it forces the audience to feel the burden of the heaviness of her past. And we try to bring it in through sound design and all of that stuff. Almost all of the prep work that we did with her and the other actors was in excavating that past and really having a very detailed account of everything that happened.
How did you go approaching the lovemaking scene? Were there intimacy coordinators involved? I’ve never seen a scene like that in how trauma was unfolded.
Thank you. I’m getting emotional because that is the one scene in the film along with the one in the end when her friend says, ‘I’ll never leave you,’ that always break me. I was terrified of this scene. I think that was the scariest scene for me as a filmmaker. This was at a moment when intimacy coordinators were starting to become a thing, but were not quite a staple yet. Because of the pandemic and the fact that we shot it in France, it was a different thing for us. My conversations with the actors was I wanted to give them the space to do this scene. Babetida said she wanted to take ownership of this scene, and she said that she wanted to coordinate it. It felt right and her scene partner Franck was like, ‘Absolutely, everyone wants to make you comfortable.’
So I had a closed rehearsal with them. They wanted to just walk through it and work it out themselves. So I let them do that, and then Babetida showed me what she had worked out and what felt comfortable for her. Then I made a couple of little adjustments to that. And then they didn’t want to do much more. It was very choreographed. I was so nervous and then we shot it a day later. It was a closed set because I only wanted the key people there in that room with her and Franck. So I think she felt even more comfortable to run through the scene because of that. The day of, I felt like I was the nervous one and they were just so comfortable. I was carrying her like she was this fragile egg, but she was just fine. So it was really Babetida who was at the helm of coordinating that scene. She was really grateful that I had entrusted her. The fact that she was in charge of the scene made her feel more comfortable. And Franck was just willing to do whatever she wanted to do.
Franck gave an amazing performance. You could see he was so transfixed with her just from his eyes. You bring such great performances out of people.
Talk to me about working with Tinx Chan. His cinematography is beautiful.
Tinx is my secret weapon. We had been working together for a couple of years. He and Babetida had a very deep connection. I could see something happening between the two of them where I felt like she always knew where he was and there was such an awareness of where the camera was at all times. She trusted him. I could see that helping her to let her guard down.
One of the things that I loved about Tinx from the beginning was that he is very story driven. We’re always talking about, ‘what is this scene doing? How does it fit into the bigger picture?’ All the visuals are built around telling the story. It’s never just creating a beautiful image for the sake of it. It’s always about how is this moving the story forward? How is this putting the audience in a space that we want to create for them? It’s such a gift to work with somebody like that who does challenge me and push back and say, “But why are we doing that?”
I love that scene in the beginning where you just see the back of her head and she’s smoking a cigarette. You do feel like you’re in one of those old French films.
Was the film shot in the South of France?
We filmed in a little town called Bagnères-de-Luchon. It’s actually my producer Joseph Mastantuono’s home town. When I was writing the film, I knew that I wanted to shoot the film in a small town. I kept envisioning mountains, so I think early on, we were thinking about Switzerland, but we realized very quickly that we couldn’t afford to shoot in Switzerland. And then he was like, ‘Actually I’m from a town like this,’ and I was like, ‘Why didn’t you say this sooner?’ It was a year into the project that he said this.
But I think Joseph has his own history with that town, and part of him was blocking it out. His family history is a complicated one. His Grandfather was the mayor of that town, so he is really within the fabric of that community. I watched a documentary that his mother had made about the town, and when I started it, I could see it. I knew that we had to go there, and so after our first workshop in Venice, we visited the town and as soon as we got there, I knew it was the place.
I’d also like to talk about Souleymane Sy Savané, who was amazing as Father Patrick. How did you discover him for the role?
He is fantastic. We actually had been cast in a short film together, and I was a fan of his. He did a beautiful film called “Goodbye Solo,” which was directed by Ramin Bahrani in 2008. I thought he was so talented. I just expected that film would open so many doors for his career, and would have been his breakthrough role. He was nominated for a Spirit award, a Gotham award, and many other awards. Then things didn’t quite take off for him the way he expected. I wasn’t that shocked about that because it’s really hard when you are a person of color and not American. I think the fact that he’s African and has an accent made it hard for him to find his path. And it’s not like there are a lot of roles being written for people like that. I felt the responsibility to try to give him a platform to continue to flourish. After meeting him, I instantly started thinking of him for the role as Father Patrick. I would say our meeting was a big reason why I was writing this movie.
The scene when he was first introduced was mesmerizing. You just heard his voice, and it was like a dream in the way people were captivated by him. He’s like a cult leader.
I think it is so funny you’re saying that. You’re the only person to pick up on that because I was kind of building it that way. Because when they were in the jungle, that is the role that he had. Everyone was sort of transfixed by what he was saying, and following him blindly. So this is kind of the same environment that I’m recreating, which is even more traumatic for her. Not only is this man here, he’s got the attention of all of her coworkers. There is this immediate feeling, even with Jeanne, the woman whom she cares for, and an acceptance of the idea that he is good. That just makes it even worse.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope that they question everything. I hope they feel a little less judgmental of others, and that this film allows and opens up conversations on different things like how do we process trauma? Who is actually being given second chances in our community? Because that was a big thing for me. Ultimately, I feel the film is asking questions like does he deserve to be forgiven? Does he deserve the second chance that she is giving him that she ultimately has gotten?
If you start to look deeper into the film, you can see people in a three-dimensional way. I’m hoping the film pushes people to look deeper and to not judge a book by its cover because I do not have all the information. For me ,that’s the big thing that I hope people take away from it. If I’ve helped them to be a little more open, and question themselves a little bit more, then I feel like I’ve done my job.