Like many organizations, the Catholic Church in France has faced a labour shortage in recent years. In its case, there haven’t been enough priests. As a result, the Church has relied on foreign-born Catholic clergy to fill the gap, often from Africa. This is the backdrop for Cameroon-born director Ellie Foumbi’s thrilling feature film, Our Father, the Devil, which will open the Vancouver International Black Film Festival on Friday (December 1).
Set in a small town in the south of France, Our Father, the Devil stars Guinea-Bissau-born Belgian actor Babetida Sadjo as Marie, an African refugee who’s the head chef in a seniors’ home. Her quiet life is radically transformed when she recognizes the new priest, Father Patrick (Ivorian actor Souléymane Sy Savané), as the perpetrator of atrocities in her unnamed African homeland.
Foumbi, who studied film at Columbia University, tells Pancouver by phone that she’s fascinated by postwar recovery. It was spurred, in part, by her father, who served as the UNICEF representative in Rwanda more than a decade after it had been torn asunder by genocide.
“I grew up always being aware of what’s going on around the world,” Foumbi says. “I became really interested in that process of healing.”
Our Father, the Devil emerged from research
From 500,000 to more than a million people were killed in Rwanda over a 100-day period in 1994 when Hutu militias attacked Tutsi people, as well as some Twa and moderate Hutus.
“It was just so crazy to me how this country was going to pull itself together after such an event,” the director states.
Because Foumbi isn’t Rwandan, she didn’t feel that it was appropriate to make a film about this country’s genocide.
To learn more about postwar recovery, however, she began reading books by former child soldiers. That included South Sudanese–born Canadian Emmanuel Jai’s War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story.
“The thing they feared the most was that they were somehow so damaged that they were unlovable because of what they had done,” Foumbi says. “This is why reintegration into society is so hard and why there is such a high suicide rate. I thought to myself: ‘the antidote to this is unconditional love’.”
According to Foumbi, Our Father, the Devil “sort of snuck up” on her. As an actor, she had previously worked with Savané (Goodbye Solo), whom she greatly admires for his range.
“I knew immediately—as we got to know each other well—that I wanted him to play Father Patrick,” Foumbi. “So, I really credit him for inspiring me and helping me develop this story because we would talk about it a lot.”
Director rejected tropes
Foumbi drew on her acting experience to create Marie’s character. That’s because Foumbi’s life experience had nothing in common with her.
“I put myself in her shoes and used my imagination to kind of build her emotional life,” she says.
In the end, Foumbi was blown away by Sadjo’s performance.
Marie’s friend, Nadia, is played by Jennifer Tchiakpe, a Paris-born actor of Syrian and Beninese ancestry. Foumbi says that Nadia lightens the mood somewhat by making the troubled Marie occasionally smile.
Foumbi felt it was important to present African characters on-screen as regular people in the world rather than being an undocumented person, living in a slum, or conforming to any other cinematic trope.
“For a lot of African audiences around the world who saw this film, it was a breath of fresh air for them to see themselves represented in a way that is not what they usually see,” Foumbi says.
Watch the trailer for Our Father, the Devil.
Our Father, the Devil address universal themes
She also wanted her movie to offer a message of hope.
In the first version of her script, she set the film in the United States. But she found it very jarring having characters speaking French in an English-speaking community because they were francophone Africans.
“It felt very clumsy,” Foumbi states. “Then a couple of years later when I changed the setting, everything fell into place. That’s when I knew I’m going to have the whole film in French and not have French be popping in and out.”
Moreover, it works well because the Catholic Church is running out of priests who were born in France.
“A lot of priests are coming from Africa,” she adds. “There is so much of it that works and that makes sense—and that feels connected to the reality that is actually present in France right now.”
Our Father, the Devil has been a huge hit on the festival circuit, winning 34 awards and securing 13 nominations. Foumbi feels that her film has struck a chord because of its universal themes.
“Given what we are living through with Ukraine and Russia, and now Israel and Palestine, for me it’s kind of eerie to have made a film that really dives into this sort of divide—and the othering of—before, and the devastating aftermath of it,” she says. “I think it’s so relevant, given what we’re going through right now.”