In a time of crisis, Haitian movie shines a bright light at Cannes Film Festival

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by: Benjamin DODMAN

The turmoil in Haiti has given added resonance to Gessica Généus’s stunning debut feature “Freda”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week. She spoke to FRANCE 24 about the film’s message, her country’s many woes, and the joy of seeing Haitian cinema feted in Cannes.

There are times in Cannes when the turmoil of the outside world brings added relevance and urgency to a film, bursting the bubble of glamour and celebrity-swooning. 

It happened five years ago with Kleber Mendonca Filho’s sublime “Aquarius”, about a woman’s fight against the crooked property developers trying to evict her, which premiered just days after another 60-something, mixed-race woman had been evicted from Brazil’s presidency by an equally unsavoury cast of white males. The “Aquarius” team hit the red carpet holding up signs against the “coup” underway back home.

This time, the shocking news of Haitian President Moïse Jovenel’s assassination has given added resonance to Gessica Généus’s “Freda”, which premiered in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, dedicated to emerging talent. Flashing radiant smiles and swaying hips, the team stormed the red carpet to the tune of voodoo-infused Afrobeat, a fitting tribute to a defiant and deeply moving film that rages against the dying of the light. 

The cast of "Freda" on the red carpet in Cannes.
The cast of “Freda” on the red carpet in Cannes. © Valéry Hache, AFP

The rage and the light radiate from the film’s protagonist Freda (Néhémie Bastien), a bright student with a warm smile and a sharp wit who lives with her mother and two siblings in a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. Freda takes on the household chores and helps run the family’s grocery store while brother Moses sits idly at home (when he isn’t squandering their meagre resources) and their younger sister Esther mostly flirts around. Their stern mother Jeannette turns a blind eye to Esther’s escapades, as long as the suitor is wealthy.

The family’s routine is regularly punctured by violent street protests, filmed with documentary vividness. “We’re not running after politics, it’s politics that’s running after us,” says one of Freda’s classmates during one of their frequent debates about the country’s many woes, past and present. The incessant turmoil catches up with the young woman when her artist boyfriend, who was almost killed in his sleep by a stray bullet, presents her with an existential dilemma: to flee the country with him or brave the mounting chaos at home.

Généus’s first feature film is a powerful tale of female resilience in a country blighted by violence, corruption and a colonial legacy that leaves women under pressure to whiten their skin, straighten their hair, clear their speech of Creole, and shun their beliefs. FRANCE 24 spoke to the director about the film’s message, the turmoil in Haiti, and her experience of the Cannes Film Festival.

Haitian director Gessica Généus speaking to FRANCE 24 in Cannes.
Haitian director Gessica Généus speaking to FRANCE 24 in Cannes. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

FRANCE 24: Is Freda’s family a microcosm of the chronic problems and difficulties that Haitians face, the women in particular?

Gessica Généus: The idea was to convey as much as possible about what’s happening in the country, while remaining in the intimacy of this family. I faced political problems very early in my life, without understanding that they were the source of my troubles. Often people don’t realise the weight of politics in their everyday life. They think they’re cursed or something, but they cannot figure out that political decisions have left them in this state.

I wanted to show how everyday life is deeply impacted by the decisions and choices made by officials who are far removed from the people’s concerns. One night you laugh and have a good time with friends, and then the next morning you’re holed up at home because of unrest in the street. Or you take your kids to school in the morning and within hours you have to go back for them because there’s teargas everywhere, or because someone got shot or kidnapped nearby. It’s not just the crime; it’s the rule of law that’s missing. There’s no one in government to make the decisions that can improve life.

Is “Freda” about the betrayal of Haiti’s youth?

No-one wants to have to struggle and feel vulnerable all the time. It’s exhausting to have to always fight for the bare minimum, to be able to eat and sleep without being woken up by gunfire nearby. Youths account for 70% of the population. To hamper them in this way is to jeopardise the future of the country. And it’s all done voluntarily. They are literally assassinating a generation and depriving them of the hope that things can improve.

The denial of Haiti’s culture and history is a recurrent theme in your film.

Haitian culture is very present and yet at the same time there’s a lot of denial. We’ve been taught that it’s because of parts of our culture that we are ostracised. When all your life you’ve been told that you are among the oppressed, the marginalised, that you have no future because of the colour of your skin or because you come from the wrong family, there comes a point when you feel you need to erase this and try to conform to what people expect from you. But your culture is still there, it haunts you.

It’s often said that Haitians are 70% Catholic, 70% Protestant and 100% voodoo. Haitian voodoo is everywhere, you can deny it as much as you like, but it’s there, it’s present and it’s strong. It’s a dilemma for many people: if you embrace voodoo you embrace the devil, you won’t go to paradise, but you’re already in hell in Haiti, so that’s two futures jeopardised at once. So people think, if there’s no future here, let’s look elsewhere. But trying to expel voodoo is wrenching and can lead to a form of schizophrenia or even madness.

The film treats its characters with empathy and tenderness, Freda’s mother in particular. Does she, in a way, embody the tragedy of a country that is incapable of protecting its children?

Yes it’s exactly that. People are torn between the need to protect and the need to survive. Sometimes they choose the latter and make painful choices, but without realising that they and their loved ones will carry the trauma all along. I think that sometimes it’s those traumas that become handicaps, preventing us from growing as a nation. At some point we will have to confront that mother – the film’s mother and our motherland – and decide what we are willing to accept and what we can no longer tolerate, so that future generations are not hampered in the same way.

Of course “Freda” is very much a tale of female courage and resilience. Is that where the hope resides?

Absolutely. People often want hope right away, concretely, like a hero who suddenly arrives to save us, or a politician who emerges from nowhere. But sometimes hope is simply about realising that we’re still here, that we’re alive, and that there’s still room to create a better future. Of course it requires a lot of energy and often we just don’t have it, because the energy is exhausted by the everyday struggle to survive. But we’re still here.

Freda (Néhémie Bastien) with her mother Jeannette (Fabiola Remy) in a still from the movie.
Freda (Néhémie Bastien) with her mother Jeannette (Fabiola Remy) in a still from the movie. © Nour Films

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The festival was just beginning when news of President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination broke. How did you experience it?

I was very angry, because we’ve been calling for help for so long. Two days before his death, several people were assassinated in a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, including a prominent activist. But there wasn’t a single word for him. Why this silence, this denial? People often think, so long as this happens in poor areas, it’s not my problem. But at some point, the violence will knock on your door. And I was angry that he [Jovenel Moïse] was unable to protect his people or even his family.

I was already at the festival when it happened. I thought about my friends who may be in even greater danger now, because we don’t know who ordered this assassination. Perhaps they will want to kill more people and take advantage of the chaos. All of which generates even more emotional insecurity.

Aside from the tragic news, what has been your experience of Cannes and how have people responded back home?

They’re delighted we’re here and they’re living the festival through us. It’s a relief to see Haiti being talked about differently in the media. I can’t remember the last time I saw an article on our country that was positive. It always sounds like our lives are an endless succession of catastrophes and political upheavals. For once, with all the “Freda” team here in Cannes, people can talk about us. We’re living it to the full, like we did on the red carpet yesterday. We strive to summon the energy and remain positive, despite what’s happening back home. A Cannes premiere has to be celebrated; we’ve done it here and people have done it from home. We send pictures and videos, that way Haitians can follow us at this festival step by step.