A singular new voice born in Cameroon and based in New York, Ellie Foumbi is set to shine on the international scene at the Venice Film Festival, where her feature debut, “Our Father, the Devil,” will be presented as part of the Biennale College-Cinema section. Foumbi, who is represented by UTA, is the second Black female helmer to be selected in the festival’s history, following Regina King’s feature debut “One Night in Miami” in 2020.
A redemption tale weaving drama and psychological thriller, Foumbi’s film follows Marie, a reclusive African refugee (Babetida Sadjo) whose quiet existence in a sleepy mountain village in the south of France is overturned when she meets the charismatic new parish priest (Souleymane Sy Savane), who happens to be the warlord that slaughtered her family and recruited her as a child.
Through her protagonist’s journey, Foumbi sheds light on the lesser-known issue of how former child’s soldiers struggle to overcome trauma and their difficult path towards rehabilitation in society.
“There aren’t a lot of films about child soldiers, some have looked at the process of how they are brought in, the horrors they experience, but no one ever asks how they start over,” says Foumbi, adding that she was inspired to tell this story partly due to her father’s work at the United Nations.
“My dad’s job at the UN was to find aid and rehabilitation for these children and try to give them a second chance, reprogram themselves. A lot of them by rescued by NGOs but there is a very high suicide rate among them; finding out all this made me want to investigate more and do something,” explains the helmer.
Foumbi says she was drawn to make this film after reading a New York Times article in 2015 about Catholic nuns who were responsible for massacring innocents in Rwanda, and sought asylum in Germany under false identities.
“They lived there in a tiny town for over a decade, working as nuns and pretending to be charitable, until a man from Rwanda who was visiting a friend went to the local church and recognized one of the women,” says Foumbi. Ultimately, the women were arrested and put on trial.
In the ambitious feature debut, Foumbi also tackles sex, love and violence and the difficulty that rape survivors experience in reclaiming their bodies and building romantic ties. The film also explores the attraction-repulsion relationship between a victim and her perpetrator. Foumbi enlisted the casting director who worked on the Sundance prizewinning film “Cuties” to come up with a strong cast, including Sadjo, the Guinean-Bissau Belgian actress who starred in Pieter Van Hees’s “Waste Land,” and Sy Savane, the West African actor of “Goodbye Solo,” with whom Foumbi previously worked on a short film.
Although she’s under 30, Foumbi is already a well-rounded artist who holds an MFA in directing at Columbia University, studied classical French theater at the French-American School of New York and was selected to participate in several prestigious fellowship programs, including the IFP Marcie Bloom program and the Hedgebrook-Humanitas Screenwriters Lab. She also participated in the New York Film Festival’s Artist Academy.
Foumbi’s production credits include “Nocturne in Black,” the 2016 Gold Student Academy Award-Winning film which went on to be shortlisted for the Oscars in the Live-Action Short category. “Zenith,” her thesis film at Columbia made it into the Student Academy Awards Semifinals and garnered a nomination for an African Movie Academy Award. Her short film “Home” was commissioned by Netflix and premiered on Netflix Film Club’s YouTube channel. The helmer also made her TV debut on BET’s hip-hop anthology “Tales.” Foumbi has also starred in films, including “Say Grace Before Drowning” and “Evolution of a Criminal.”
Foumbi is now developing a feature film expanding on her thesis short film. She will star in the long-gestated passion project as an adopted black Mennonite who leaves the rural white community she was raised in and travels to an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia to find her biological mother. The project was part of Tribeca Untold Stories program in 2019.
“This film will explore identity and race and what it means to be Black in America,” said Foumbi, who moved to the States when she was 5 and went to French school. “Growing up, I had so many issues about my identity as a Black woman, so there’s a lot of me in this story.”