In times of crisis, Haitian film shines bright light on Cannes Film Festival

The unrest in Haiti has given extra resonance to Gessica Généus’ stunning feature debut ‘Freda’, which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. She spoke to Jowharabout the film’s message, her country’s many miseries and the joy of seeing Haitian cinema celebrated in Cannes.

There are moments in Cannes when the turmoil of the outside world gives a film added relevance and urgency, bursting the bubble of celebrity glamor and swoon.

It happened five years ago to Kleber Mendonca Filho’s sublime “Aquarius,” about a woman’s struggle against the crooked property developers trying to evict her, which premiered just days after another 60-year-old mixed-race woman from the Brazil’s presidency had been put in place by an equally unsavory cast of white men. The “Aquarius” team hit the red carpet with signs against the “coup” on its way home.

This time, the shocking news of the assassination of Haitian President Moïse Jovenel has given extra resonance to Gessica Généus’ “Freda,” which premiered in the sidebar of Un Certain Regard, devoted to emerging talent. With beaming smiles and swaying hips, the team stormed the red carpet to the tune of voodoo-infused Afrobeat, a fitting tribute to a provocative and deeply moving film raging against the extinction of the light.

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

The anger and light radiate from main character Freda (Néhémie Bastien), a smart student with a warm smile and a sharp wit who lives with her mother and two siblings in a poor neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Freda takes care of the household chores and helps run the family grocery store, while brother Moses sits at home unemployed (if he’s not wasting their meager resources) and their younger sister Esther usually flirts. Their strict mother Jeannette turns a blind eye to Esther’s escapades as long as the suitor is rich.

The family’s routine is regularly disrupted by violent street protests, filmed with documentary vibrancy. “We’re not running after politics, it’s politics running after us,” says one of Freda’s classmates during one of their frequent debates about the country’s many miseries, past and present. The incessant unrest overtakes the young woman when her artist friend, who was nearly killed in his sleep by a stray bullet, presents her with an existential dilemma: flee the country with him or brave the increasing chaos at home.

Généus’ first feature is a powerful story of female resilience in a country ravaged by violence, corruption and a colonial legacy that pressures women to whiten their skin, straighten their hair, purify their Creole language and to shun their faith. Jowharspoke to the director about the film’s message, the unrest in Haiti and her experience with the Cannes Film Festival.

Haitian director Gessica Généus in conversation with Jowharin Cannes. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

FRANCE 24: Is Freda’s family a microcosm of the chronic problems and difficulties facing Haitians, especially women?

Gessica Généus: The idea was to convey as much as possible about what is happening in the country, while remaining in the intimacy of this family. Very early in my life I was faced with political problems, without realizing that they were the cause of my problems. Often people do not realize the importance of politics in their daily lives. They think they’re cursed or something, but they can’t figure out that political decisions left them in this state.

I wanted to show how everyday life is deeply affected by the decisions and choices made by officials who are far removed from the concerns of the people. One night you’re laughing and having fun with friends, and the next morning you’re sitting at home in the turmoil on the street. Or you take your kids to school in the morning and you have to go back for them in a few hours because there is tear gas everywhere, or because someone has been shot or kidnapped nearby. It’s not just the crime; it is the rule of law that is missing. There is no one in government to make the decisions that can make life better.

Is ‘Freda’ about the betrayal of Haiti’s youth?

No one wants to struggle and feel vulnerable all the time. It’s exhausting to always have to fight for the bare minimum, to be able to eat and sleep without being woken up by nearby gunshots. Young people make up 70% of the population. To hinder them in this way jeopardizes the future of the country. And it’s all done voluntarily. They are literally killing a generation and depriving them of hope that things can get better.

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

Haitian culture is very present and yet there is a lot of denial. We have learned that it is through parts of our culture that we are ostracized. When you’ve been told all your life that you’re one of the oppressed, one of the marginalized, that you have no future because of the color of your skin or because you come from the wrong family, there comes a time when you feel like you’ve erased and try to live up to what people expect from you. But your culture is still there, it haunts you.

It is often said that Haitians are 70% Catholic, 70% Protestant and 100% Voodoo. Haitian voodoo is everywhere, you can deny it as much as you want, but it’s there, it’s there and it’s strong. It’s a dilemma for many people: when you embrace voodoo, you embrace the devil, you’re not going to paradise, but you’re already in hell in Haiti, so that’s two futures in jeopardy at once. So people think, if there’s no future here, let’s look elsewhere. But trying to get rid of voodoo is heartbreaking and can lead to a form of schizophrenia or even insanity.

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

Yes it is 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 realizing that they and their loved ones always carry the trauma with them. I think sometimes it’s those traumas that become a handicap that prevents us from growing as a nation. At some point we will have to confront that mother – the mother of the film and our motherland – and decide what we will accept and what we can no longer tolerate, so that future generations are not hindered in the same way.

Of course, “Freda” is very much a story of female courage and resilience. Is there hope there?

Absolutely. People often want immediate hope, concretely, like a hero who suddenly arrives to save us, or a politician who appears out of nowhere. But sometimes hope is just about realizing that we are still here, that we are alive and that there is still room to create a better future. Of course it takes a lot of energy and often we just don’t have it because the energy is depleted by the daily struggle for survival. But we’re still here.

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

The festival started just as the news of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse broke. How did you experience it?

I was very angry because we have been calling for help for so long. Two days before his death, several people were murdered in a poor area of ​​Port-au-Prince, including a prominent activist. But there was not a word for him. Why this silence, this denial? People often think, as 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 might be in even greater danger now, because we don’t know who ordered this murder. Maybe they want to kill more people and take advantage of the chaos. All this generates even more emotional insecurity.

Aside from the tragic news, what is your experience with Cannes and how have people at home reacted?

They are happy that we are here and they experience the festival through us. It is a relief to see that Haiti is being discussed differently in the media. I can’t remember the last time I saw a positive article about our country. It always sounds like our lives are an endless succession of disasters and political upheavals. For once, people can talk about us with the whole “Freda” team here in Cannes. We are living it to the fullest, as we did on the red carpet yesterday. We strive to evoke the energy and stay positive, despite what is happening at home. A premiere in Cannes should be celebrated; we did it here and people have done it from home. We are sending photos and videos so that Haitians can follow us step by step in this festival.

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