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by Annie Nocenti
on Jan 7, 2022
Cannes Film Festival 2021, Francis Ford Coppola, Freda, Gessica Généus, haiti
The making of Freda, the narrative feature debut of actor, singer and documentarian Gessica Généus, shot between lockdowns in the endlessly troubled streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was “like a sprint,” says Généus, “I was rushing, I didn’t sleep.”
Freda is a family drama masterfully set against the backdrop of the chaos of life in Haiti. With a wry eye on societal issues, Freda offers a heartbreaking and complex female gaze on life in a machismo culture. Freda received a standing ovation at its Un Certain Regard screening at the 2021 Cannes festival and was only the second Haitian film to be submitted to the Academy Awards’ International Feature category.
Francis Ford Coppola, legendary filmmaker behind such classics as The Conversation, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, has long understood the difficulties of making films in challenging circumstances. Coppola was one of the original donors to Haiti’s only film school, Ciné/Artists Institute in Jacmel, when it opened in 2008, and has remained a committed supporter. When David Belle, founder of Ciné/Artists Institute, sent Freda to Coppola, he generously signed on as executive producer. “Gessica Généus’ film is an unforgettable jewel told with simple eloquence, beautifully memorable performances, and genuine feeling that few films ever achieve,” said Coppola, “This glimpse of contemporary life in Haiti shows a people who refuse to be defined by their tragic moments.”
The film focuses on the life of a Jeannette (Fabiola Rémy) who runs a street store in a poor neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, and her daughters Freda (Néhémie Bastien) and Esther (Djanaïna François). Produced by SaNoSi (Jean-Marie Gigon), Ayizan (Gessica Généus) and Merveilles, Freda was filmed in 2019-2020, just after a long lockdown due to PetroCaribe embezzlement protests.
Freda has been released theatrical in France, Belgium and Switzerland; U.S. distribution is currently in the works.
Filmmaker: Your film captures the double-edged spirit of Haiti, of how hard life is there, and yet how brave and joyous the women can be.
Gessica Généus: I basically grew up exactly the way Freda does in the film. I grew up with my mother, I grew up with women. I never really knew my father. I knew him, but he was absolutely not part of our lives. We were in a very precarious situation, also like Freda. Life was bad for me. It was not a nightmare, but it was extremely difficult. It became a nightmare when my mom got sick when I was 14. She slipped into a very dark world where only she could understand where she was. They diagnosed her as bipolar with schizophrenia. So from 14 on I had to pick up everything and build my path. If I can review my life in Haiti, it’s a bunch of battles and a lot of patience. It’s a path where I had to renew myself completely as a human being and re-commit to myself. When people ask me, am I Freda or Esther? I am definitely both of them. I could have easily taken Esther’s path of marrying a rich man. You’re tempted when you grow up in precarious situations to go that way because it’s easy. But unfortunately nothing is easy.
Filmmaker: The mother, Jeannette, seems very calculated about deciding what each child gets, as if she can orchestrate their destiny. Esther is the one she pushes to marry into wealth, she wants Freda to work, not bother with school, and Moses gets the automatic privilege of a son.
Généus: There is this myth of the powerless woman. There are important areas where we are powerless in Haiti, especially in politics, but on the other hand, in the house, the woman is the most powerful. At some point men are taught that just giving money is power. And so they leave the women to decide everything in the home, so it’s definitely a position of power. By doing a quick assessment of everyone, Jeanette says: you should do this. Because we don’t have time to go deep into anything. It’s about the here and now constantly. So right now, what can we do to get the money flow into the house? We’ve got to eat. A lot of mothers subconsciously do this assessment of their children in their heads, where they know how to play around with things, then at night they will just pray that this won’t be held against them. They know what they are doing but they are playing the game of not knowing. The mother daughter relationship is a really tricky and messy relationship.
Filmmaker: The first classroom scene sets up the world of the film so powerfully. The line one student says, that “Creole is not a proper language.” And the casual talk in the film about skin lightening creams, and the push to speak French, can you talk about that contradiction?
Généus: Yes, totally, because colorism is our reality. From my perspective, growing up in Haiti, colorism has been the major thing that had the most impact. We are a majority Black in Haiti. There’re very little mix or European people that are Haitian. And we don’t even have access to them. So on a daily basis, the one that is darker, or the one that is a little bit light-skinned? This defines how people behave between each other, and how people see you, even when you go to a bank or an institution or anywhere, the darker you are, the more you will generate fear. And this is what fascinates me. It’s not someone who is lighter that will get scared or whatever, it’s people that are the same color. So it’s a self-destruction. It goes against you. It’s on you. It’s about you. It’s a rejection of your own self. There is no quote unquote “winning” in this situation. In colorism, no one is winning. Because it’s a fight between us, of one against the other. For me it is mind-blowing.
Filmmaker: That line in the film “you’re getting whiter by the day” is a double-edged comment, it’s both an insult and a compliment.
Généus: Yes exactly. Depends on who’s saying it to you. It’s complicated. The lighter you are, for some reason, you’ll be bound to speak French. Because you will be treated differently. You will have access to more things, people are willing to help more. The darker you are, most of the time, you only speak Creole. The language is directly linked to the classicism and also to the color of your skin.
Filmmaker: There is also that fascinating dialog about “the curse” — whose curse is it, and when did the curse start? The talk about the curse in relation to Vodou?
Généus: It’s a very basic coping mechanism, or survival mechanism. When you can’t explain things that are happening to you, of course you will go right away for the thing that they told you was supposed to be removed from your identity. Because this has been said, for centuries now, about Vodou. You were not supposed to get your independence by doing a ceremony to get it. So every time things go wrong, since there’s no state of law, there is no government that is taking care of anything, you turn around, and take what they told you as the truth. And my God, it’s really hard to say otherwise. Because there is no other answer that is available to them, to any of us, actually. To anyone who is in this emergency of life in Haiti constantly, the violence of it, the only way you can explain it is – “well, there’s nothing we can do.” And nowadays, people will go to church when they are sick. They go and lie down in church. Not because they are believers, but because there is no hospital. Most hospitals won’t let them in without money. So this curse thing is the only explanation that they have found.
Filmmaker: One student says “The curse began on the day the French ripped us from our country.” Someone else said: “We’re cursed because we refuse to whiten ourselves.”
Généus: Haiti is the only county in the Caribbean where Vodou is so strong. You see it in our art. It’s like we’ve managed to hold on to a few things, I don’t know how, but they are extremely strong in this country, and it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. The richness of it, and also the heaviness of it. You express these very complex emotions through your art, because it’s not possible to analyze it in a straightforward way. I think I’ve taught myself to stay in the grey area. Because when I was constantly in the extremes of my vision, or the way I see this country, it would always be the most painful thing ever. What if we redefine what this means? We have to start looking at ourselves differently. So there is this reclaiming of your power, in terms of what you understand and what makes sense to you, what gives you strength. Even if Vodou has its weaknesses and everything, but we know it, we’re comfortable in it, it is our strength.
Filmmaker: Because of all the chaos in Port-au-Prince, how difficult was the shoot?
Généus: It was difficult, but we were coming out of three months of lockdown. It was 2019, so it was just after all the madness of the PetroCaribe protests. It was a year of lockdowns, and that was the last and the longest one. I was sitting in my house thinking I’ll never be able to make this film. Then I realized it had to be now. It can’t wait. And slowly I saw that people were coming out of their houses, to be in the street, because this is where they survive, in the street, where they make their money. And I said to my producer, I have to do it now, with whatever money we have, we have to do it now. And we pushed. It was like a sprint. I was rushing, I didn’t sleep. I was writing during the night, I was writing all kinds of possible scenarios, in case I cannot do plan A, I had plan B, C, D, E, F, G…
Filmmaker: Can you give an example of a scene that changed like that?
Généus: The wedding. I was supposed to shoot the wedding of Esther and the Senator and I was thinking about all the extras, the logistics, and so while the producers were all going crazy, about how are we going to do this, I re-wrote the script. Do we even need that wedding? What are weddings? A wedding is a display of love, normally, or a display of power. And if we can’t display those two things, why even have the wedding? So I cut it.
Filmmaker: I love the scene when the Senator brings Esther the generator, a perfect display of his power. A generator literally is power. Because in Haiti, there is such limited electricity. Only 4 or 5 hours a day is it?
Généus: Lately I see that every day they give electricity for an hour, or an hour and a half. And you suspect, what are they up to? Are they about to take it away for six months or something?
Filmmaker: Can you talk about how it was to film with mostly non-actors? Did they memorize lines or ad-lib?
Généus: The tricky one was the mother, Jeannette, because she couldn’t read or write, so I had to hire someone to teach her the lines. Also, as we shot, I took a lot of text out. A film is a film, it’s not a book, and I think I wrote too much at first. When you watch the scenes and see the strength of the image you free yourself from the need of talking. And most of the time I would also tell the actors that we were just rehearsing, and not tell them I was shooting. So they don’t know I’m shooting.
Filmmaker: Does Haiti still not have any cinemas?
Généus: Someone tried to open a theater, but then the PetroCaribe madness happened. There is the Triumph downtown. They supposedly spent six million to renovate it, but it has never been used to project a film. I don’t know what it has been used for. A few friends of mine did a protest, and they projected a film on the building wall. Because no one had access to the theater. Because they wanted to do a film festival, and they asked, Why can’t you open it for us? And they didn’t respond. So they projected a film on the wall of the theater. And it had such an impact that the government decided that next year, they will let them use it once.