A Mother's Quest: Alain Gomis' 'Félicité' chronicles an African woman's drive to save her son

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Among the narrative features that screened at the New York Film Festival this year, Alain Gomis’ Félicité was the most strikingly original work. The writer-director’s childhood roots lie in the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau that is comprised of an archipelago celebrated for its biodiversity and, on the mainland, an unusually large riparian forest—but Félicité is set in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The forest in the northeast of that country is a central leitmotif in Gomis’ quest story.

Félicité, the Silver Bear winner at the Berlin Film Festival, will open theatrically (from Strand Releasing) on Oct. 27. Its NYFF premiere brought Gomis to New York City this month. “I have this culture of the forest where the forest is a space in between the invisible life and the concrete life,” Gomis says, in an interview at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. “It was very important to me to go to Kinshasa, and back to my African roots. I feel that there the frontier between the visible and the unseen is fluid.” In the movie, the life of the filmmaker’s eponymous hero is suddenly altered by her teenage son’s accident. Félicité (Vevo Tshanda Beya) is a lovely creature of the night, a singer in a busy open-air bar.

While the audience learns little about her past, Félicité’s ennui is apparent the first time she appears onscreen. “Her wound is that she just has to accept it, that the wound is part of her,” the 45-year-old filmmaker says. A French and Wolof speaker, born in France, Gomis is also comfortable conversing in English. His mother is French, and his father, born in Guinea-Bissau, is Senegalese. “The wound may come from the moment you are born,” he observes. “Who knows what this incredible, impossible adventure is of being alive?” Félicité is Gomis’ fourth feature, and the first to be released in the United States. His star, Beya, and co-star Papi Mpaka, are Congolese and Lingala speakers; on location in Kinshasa, French was their common language.

Like the hero of a Dardenne Brothers movie, Félicité’s conundrum becomes a life-defining quest for identity and consciousness. “She wants the world to work the way she thinks the world should be,” Gomis observes. The performer must raise a million francs for her son Samo’s (Gaetan Claudia) operation. “I love her warrior side and her great sense of morality, but you can’t have the world the way you want it to be. It is what it is.”

The writer-director, who works from a completed screenplay, sometimes rewrites dialogue during production. He employed an amateur cast for the movie. Beya, though, has some theatrical experience. “Félicité’s journey,” Gomis says, “is trying to accept herself in this world.”

Félicitéis inspired by the experiences of a member of the writer-director’s family; his choice of Kinshasa was determined in part by his discovery of the Kasai Allstars, a band that features artists from several Congolese tribal traditions. It is Félicité’s band, and the orchestra playing Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” is the Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa. Both appear onscreen, as music tells much of the story in Félicité.

“I tried to choose the right music for the actress and for the moment in the film, so for the song at the beginning, Félicité is like a queen,” Gomis says. “When she starts to sing, she commands the world.” After Félicité learns of Samo’s fall from a motorcycle, the camera follows her through the streets of Kinshasa on the way to the hospital. “Fratres” is heard on the soundtrack. Pärt himself has described his work as a search for unity, and Gomis uses it as a musical representation of the yearning of Félicité’s soul. Exhausted from her daily struggle to raise money from her friends and family, Félicité’s repertoire changes. “Her second song is a fight and she sings a capella,” Gomis says. “You can feel her guts in some ways.”

The filmmaker rehearsed his cast for six months. “During that time, we are building a relationship for the film, and individually with the characters, so that when we are on the set, we are free,” he explains. “We already know the melody and the structure, and filming it is a rendezvous of different moments.”

Production drew a good deal of attention in Kinshasa, the filmmaker recalls, especially around Mpaka, who plays Félicité’s charming suitor. He works in the city; like his character, he is a mechanic.

Gomis asked his director of photography, Céline Bozon, to join the cast during rehearsals. “In the contact between the camera and the actor, you learn that there is something you don’t have to show,” he notes. “Films are not about representing yourself as a character. They are really about trying to find this way together.”

Gomis confesses that each movie is also a private quest. “It is not as much about making films as it is about having a journey in life, about trying to go through something and transition, although none of this is really clear to me while I’m making the movie.” On Félicité, he struggled with casting just the right actress; at first, he rejected Beya because she was “too beautiful.” He asked her to come back without her makeup and screen-tested her. “I never had to deal with such a powerful actress or actor,” he recalls. “I thought: What am I going to do with so much power?”

Having had a white woman admit to him that she saw herself in Félicité, he smiles and says that he has also recognized himself on the screen—as a Japanese boy. “I found myself in Ozu’s silent, black-and-white film I was Born, But…,” he recalls. Widely considered the Japanese auteur’s breakout film, it is a comedy about two boys who grow to accept the limitations of adult life. “It is set in a Tokyo suburb, but those boys were me!”

Gomis’ adventure in the Congo may not have been as profound, but he did see one of the rarest animals in the world, the okapi. The antelope-size mammal is related to the giraffe, and has zebra stripes on its hind parts and legs. It exists only in the forests in the northeastern corner of the country. “The okapi looks like an animal from a fairytale,” Gomis says. “The moment I saw it, I knew that I could use it in Félicité’s dream sequences.”

If the framework of Gomis’ story, and his charismatic and determined female character, are reminiscent of the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the filmmaker differs in his preoccupation with discovering and representing his protagonist’s inner life. “All is not conscious,” he says of the process of filmmaking. “If you know the direction beforehand, there is no use in spending three or four years of your life in what you want to tell to the world.” In Félicité, Gomis’ hero wanders into a dark, umbrageous dreamscape to find her way to a more meaningful life. Asked about the sequence, he says: “We spend much of our lives thinking, dreaming and remembering, which is part of the forest.”