Alain Gomis: “The Fight for African Cinema has Begun!”

Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis is the man behind Félicité, and offers a touching character study of singer struggling to get by in Kinshasa. The film features a black leading actress, an unfortunately rare occurrence in modern cinema.

Driven by the intense performances of its cast and a hypnotically appealing soundtrack, the movie won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, was presented at the New York Film Festival, and will be released in the United States on October 27.

France-Amérique: Why did you choose the name Félicité for the title?

Alain Gomis: This title draws on two inspirations, one French and one African. “Félicité” is the name of a song by one of the pioneers of modern African music, the late Congolese singer Joseph Kabassélé, which is part of the movie’s soundtrack. In one of his songs he says “Your smile is like an armored car”, and I think that’s an accurate description of the film’s main character. She is incredibly strong, and always stands tall and proud even in the face of adversity. But she is also so guarded that she refuses to accept any form of life or love. Her armor begins to crack as her problems slowly wear her down, and in a way, that’s a good thing. The title’s other reference is to a character in Flaubert’s novella Un cœur simple who faces countless struggles, but who eventually reaches a form of enlightenment. The name of my movie was born of a combination of these two characters.

Following on from L’Afrance, Andalucia and Today, this is your first movie to not be filmed in French. Can you tell us more?

African movies are required to be at least half in French if they want to obtain financing from production companies in France. This can make things a little odd, with actors speaking in a language that is not their own just for financial reasons. With Félicité I wanted the cast to be able to speak their own language, Lingala. Ironically, I was the one who didn’t speak it; I was at a real disadvantage because I couldn’t understand what the actors were saying! It forced me to stop trying to understand everything and instead just connect with them and feel their acting. You have to break down the codes of the film industry in order to invent your own language.

What is your place in African cinema? 

I am an African, French, and European director all at once, drawing on universal influences. My father is Senegalese and my mother is French, but I also have Bissau-Guinean roots and I maintain a special relationship with Africa despite living in Paris. I can see the African reappropriation of the self is beginning to take hold after decades of being dominated. My objective is to dialogue with these budding African societies. The president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has now gone 18 months over his elected mandate, and there is no official, structured cinema scene in Kinshasa. But there are 13 million people living there, and the city has a strong artistic culture. Whether theatre, contemporary art or literature, everything has its place. The capital is totally underrepresented compared with how important it is, and I’m hoping to edge it into the spotlight. The bulk of African films are currently produced in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Kenya, and Nigeria with its famous Nollywood scene. The fight for African cinema still has a long way to go, but it has definitely begun! I’m just hoping to contribute to its development.