It is rare for a revenge tale to ask the protagonists and the audience to forgive those who have caused them so much pain and suffering. It's even rarer that a film like Our Father, the Devil can find multiple angles to explore how someone could or couldn't forgive the unforgivable. 

Ellie Foumbi’s directorial debut, Our Father, the Devil follows a young woman, Marie Cissé (Babetida Sadjo), who is living a quiet, anonymous life in a small French town before she recognizes a catholic priest as the warlord responsible for murdering her family. 

The film, which won the audience award at Tribeca in June and Mill Valley Film Fest’s Mind the Gap Creation Prize, is a complicated yet beautiful look at trauma and the healing process through a lens that is rarely explored. Foumbi’s delicate touch and understanding of her characters and their traumas build a story that is deeply moving.

Foumbi was able to talk with No Film School via Zoom during the Indie Memphis Film Festival, where she won the Best Narrative Feature award for her film, about the process behind creating her first feature, working with a creative team she trusts, and her insights on working with a story she has been wanting to tell for a long time.  

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

No Film School: What was the inspiration behind Our Father, the Devil?

Ellie Foumbi: I'm someone who's very much... I'm a sponge, I soak up whatever's going on around me. I was very influenced by my father's work with the UN and some of the work he was doing in Africa. When I was younger, he was working with the Rwandan government, specifically with the First Lady of Rwanda, on instituting this national forgiveness program in Rwanda.

I was just really curious about that and how's that going to work. How are you just going to get all of these people who were maimed, who lost family members, who lost friends, how are you just going to get all of these people to forgive the other half of the country that did that to them? 

I was able to have access to a colleague of his who had started an NGO and who was working with some kids and helping them deal with, mainly with orphans, helping them deal with some of the trauma that they had and some of this rage. And in talking with those children, I became interested in some of how you heal the scars of war. 

I didn't want to be specific about where Marie (Babetida Sadjo) was from because I didn't think that was the point, but that's sort of how I became interested in this topic and wanted to write something from a woman's perspective. 

Also because I hadn't seen most of the films that I'd seen about child soldiers were about the war and how the kids were recruited. I'm like, "We never see what happens to these kids. Are they able to pull their lives back together? Who do they become as adults? How do they carry these scars with them?" And just thinking about that made me feel like this would be a very compelling story and one that I could also, I think, I don't know, bring my own stuff to. So that's kind of how it started.

NFS: The film deals heavily with themes of trauma, revenge, and the difficulties of the healing process. Did you always envision telling the story through the lens of revenge?

Foumbi: Yeah, I think that was the one thing that was with me at the beginning that kind of stuck because when I was talking to some of those kids, that was the emotion that was the rawest that they all felt, and it dominated their lives for a very, very long time. To the point where one of the guys I spoke to said to me that he was unable to have any kind of intimate relationship because he didn't have anything to give to a partner. 

He didn't have anything to give to a partner. He couldn't open himself up. He was just so consumed by it. And I think that's kind of what I pulled from to build Marie. I thought, "Okay, well this has to be the dominating emotion from the beginning, and then is it possible for it to turn into something else?"

Ellie Foumbi on writing and directing 'Our Father, the Devil''Our Father, the Devil'Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Foumbi

NFS: There is always a risk when you are the writer and a director for your first feature, yet you seem to know exactly what you want from each line, action, and scene. How are you able to find this trust in your creative vision?

Foumbi: I have to give credit to the team around me. It's so crucial when you're so close to a story that you can step back and allow other people to add their own thing. 

Starting with my producer, Joseph Mastantuono. I didn't even have a place to set this. I knew it had to be in a small town and I wanted there to be mountains. I want it to feel like a place where she's hiding. Joseph said, "Well, I'm kind of from a town like this,” and showed me his mom's documentary, and I realized this is the perfect town. He kind of added to that. 

My DP, Tinx Chan, was so instrumental in building the visual language of the film with me to my editor who was there from the beginning, actually. My editor, who's also my associate producer on the film, Roy Clovis, was there every step of the way when I was writing the script, he was giving notes. When I started building my shot list, he was involved in giving his two cents about how things would cut together. And my cast... I developed the roles of Marie and Father Patrick with Souleymane Sy Savane and Babetida Sadjo. 

I think that some people think directing is all about being in control all the time and telling people what to do, but my definition of directing is very much not that. I think that your job is to manage the talent of the people around you and to allow them to contribute to the vision.

I see this film and I see the contributions of every single person that worked on it with me. I couldn't have made this movie just by myself. I think I was smart to allow them to contribute and to listen to advice. I was very open and also, as my first film, very cognizant of the fact that I didn't know everything and that I needed to rely on the experience of the people around me.

NFS: What kind of adjustments did you have to make going from directing short films to directing a feature?

Foumbi: I mean, honestly, I think I was so ready to make this film when I did. I think the big adjustment is that there's so much more pressure. The pressure is enormous because you've got money on the line. After all, so many more things can go wrong. I mean, for me at least, that was the big adjustment. 

There's so much more to manage than when you're doing a short you feel the pain for a very short period of time. That pressure is just not the same. If the short doesn't work, you're like, "I'll make another one." With the feature it's not just, I'll make another one. It's that you've spent years working on a script that you feel is something special, and you don't want to mess that up because it's not just starting over and writing another script. In my case, I got most of my funding from Europe, so I didn't have so much pressure on that end of making an investor their money back. But still, I felt the importance of the story and wanted to get that right.

NFS: From a writing/directing standpoint, how do you feel you've hit something good, you've hit gold in a scene?

Foumbi: I felt it on set that we were doing something special. I could feel it in the energy of everyone else who was clearly, I think from the first scene because we started... We shot all the cabin stuff first, which was the most intense stuff. I remember after we shot the first scene, I could feel the energy of everyone on set shift. 

Everyone goes, "Oh, we need to step up,” because our lead actress is so good and she was so keyed in that we all realize, "Oh, okay, no, this is going to be on another level." I could feel that. It wasn't until my editor sent me the first dailies that I knew, "Oh my God, this is so much more than I expected and we need to somehow manage to keep this level up." 

NFS: It's such a good feeling.

Foumbi: It is. And it didn't feel like my movie. It felt like an out-of-body experience. That's also the pressure I felt was very much also in regards to the cast. Because when you have actors that give you so much and that are so present, you don't want to let them down. You want to make sure that you are honoring the work that they're giving.

Ellie Foumbi on writing and directing 'Our Father, the Devil''Our Father, the Devil'Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Foumbi

 NFS: I was listening to one of our interviews with Halina Reijn [the director for Bodies, Bodies, Bodies], and she said that she thought the actors created the movie when she was younger. Do you similarly feel this when directing? 

Foumbi: Absolutely. I mean, you can shoot the most beautiful image. You can find a gorgeous location, you can production design the hell out of it. But if those actors don't come together, and if it doesn't feel like they're telling the truth on screen, none of it matters. You realize that you can have a very low-budget film where there isn't anything fancy, but if there's a real honest scene between the actors on screen, magic happens. 

NFS: I read that you had to sacrifice some of the conversations or dialogue, which you describe as being very part of African culture, because of the nature of the visual medium. How did you decide what had to go and what would stay?

Foumbi: I think this is one of the transitions from when you're working on a script. When you start to hear the actors speak the words, or at least for me, when you’re watching them performing it, you can just feel it. You're like, "Oh, she doesn't have to say anything.”

I think action becomes so much more important because you can see her performing an action versus her saying something. To me, that communicates just as much, if not more than words. I started to realize that I could have Marie be more silent in the film, which I love, and I started to lean towards her only speaking when she needed to. There are a lot of scenes when Father Patrick is just going on and on and on, and she's not responding. She's just sort of getting up, going to the sink, doing stuff, just going about her business. That felt really right to me. It was just kind of following my instincts in the moment.

NFS: There's a lot of sympathy for all the characters involved. And I think that a major part of that comes from not showing any of the violence. It's interpreted, and you can hear it in the sound design, but I'm very interested in your choice to just keep the violence off-screen.

Foumbi: I mean, for me, when you don't see what's being done and you can hear it's a lot worse. You're imagining something way more terrible than what's happening. We didn’t have a big budget and I didn’t want to do some cheap-looking scene where we were showing all this blood. It's just not even necessary.

It was written that way in the script. It wasn't just a budgetary choice in the script. I had all of these sound design notes, which was another reason it was exciting to make this film. I hadn't made anything that was so sound-design-heavy in the past. I was excited to build that landscape with my sound designer and my whole sound team. In some of the films that I've seen, even Michael Haneke, who's one of my biggest influences in a lot of his films, the horror is off-screen. I really appreciated that he held it back and forced the audience to imagine what it was.

Ellie Foumbi on writing and directing 'Our Father, the Devil''Our Father, the Devil'Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Foumbi

NFS: What is your favorite scene or moment in the film?

Foumbi: My favorite moment is the alleyway scene. It's the scene when she's just trying to collect herself and Arnaud (Franck Saurel) arrives and they have this intimate moment where he tells her it's okay for her to let her guard down, and she almost does. I remember when we shot that scene, I remember it was great, but it was so much better when I watched it. I remember, as an audience member, wanting her so badly to drop her guard. I wanted her so badly to kiss him.

I thought this was pretty special. I didn't remember feeling this when we were shooting it, but that I had this separation with myself as the person who wrote and made it. It was almost like I was just an audience member. And it was this moment of tenderness and this moment of her almost being able to be normal for a second that I think sticks with me. 

NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are wanting to make their first feature?

Foumbi: I think it all starts with the script. I know it's corny, but it starts there because that's how you invite other people into the world of your film. Even if you're not a strong writer, you can partner up with someone. I think it's about having an idea and telling it in a way that feels fresh and original, but also in a way that feels honest. Even though this is not my story, I put a lot of myself into Marie and just being a woman. We can all identify with some of the things that she's dealing with. I tried to put as much of myself into this film as I could. 

Then, I think it's what I said earlier, finding the right collaborators, finding people. I mean most of these guys, my producer, my DP, my editor, my composer, Gavin Brivik, who also did music on How to Blow Up a Pipeline, all of these people that I'd worked with on several projects, we had built a relationship together. 

It's not always possible for people, but start working with people. Work on shorts, and start discovering what you like and don't like. I think a feature is very demanding and it's helpful to work with people that you have a relationship with. People who, for me, had my back and were invested in this film being good, not just because they liked the film but because they wanted me to succeed. That love was very present on set.