On Film, a Window Into Haiti

On Film, a Window Into Haiti

Gessica Généus discusses Freda, the first movie by a female Haitian director to be nominated for an award at Cannes.


Haitian writer, actor, and director Gessica Généus began her career as a 17-year-old struggling to support her final years of school in Port-au-Prince by starring in a telenovela-style film about a haughty upper-class sister who thwarts a relationship between her brother and the family’s maid. That film, Barikad, launched Généus’s career and led her to take on leading roles in the critically acclaimed hits of Haiti’s film renaissance in the 2000s like Does the President Have Aids? and The Loves of a Zombie. After the country’s devastating earthquake in 2010, she moved to Paris and studied acting in Paris for two years before eventually moved into directing.

Généus released her first documentary in 2019, The Sun Will Rise, about religion in Haiti and the mental health struggles of her devout mother, who now lives in Florida. Généus’s fictional directorial debut, Freda (2021), draws on her own experiences growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Port-au-Prince and is the first film by a female Haitian director to be nominated for an award at Cannes and to be a finalist in Africa’s biggest pan-African film festival, FESPACO, where it claimed second place in the Étalon d’Or (the Golden Stallion).

Set during the country’s violent anti-corruption protests in 2018 and ’19, Généus tells the story of Freda, a young anthropology student from a poor neighborhood and the heavy choice she faces to follow her artist lover abroad or stay with her family as the violence mounts. The story unfolds around the stoop of her mother’s bodega, in front of their tiny home, and in cramped bars and streets, where she and her sister Esther sing, dance, and meet lovers and friends. The joys of youth are interrupted by gunshots and burning tires and contrasted with the exploitative relationships her sister and cousin have with older politicians, missionaries, and foreign men.

Généus, who divides her time between Haiti and Zimbabwe, is widely followed by Haitians on social media and often publishes angry tweets about the treatment of Haitian migrants by countries like the United States. Généus and I spoke during FESPACO about her fight with funders to keep her film in her native Creole, the race to finish shooting her film between a pause in the violence, and the first Black republic’s troubled relationship with United States.

—Clair MacDougall

Clair MacDougall: What inspired you to make the film? It’s obviously very focused on women.

Gessica Généus: Honestly, I wish I could say that it is a feminist film, but it’s mostly that I wanted to see people that I grew up with. I grew up with women, I grew up with my mother and cousins. For me, when you are making your first film, it must be something vital—you have to feel like I have to make this or otherwise I’m going to die, especially in a context like Haiti. When I thought about all of the stories that I have in my head, I knew my relationship between me, my mother, and my older sister well. The dynamic was exactly the kind of dynamic between Freda and Esther, where one has lighter skin, the other one is darker, and the mother is kind of behaving differently with both of them. This was something that was actually extremely traumatizing for both of us.

I decided to make the film closer this generation and set it in 2018 within this new fight to make sure that this story is not forgotten, like my mum’s stories and those of all of the other thousands and millions of people who fought in the late 1980s for Aristide [Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president].

CM: One thing that is really apparent in the film is just how difficult the choices women have to make are. There is that scene where Yeshua, Freda’s boyfriend, the artist, urges her to leave and says you can’t live in peace in Haiti. What are your thoughts about that? Is that true?

GG: I think they [Freda and Yeshua] are both right about the fact that you cannot live in peace in Haiti right now. I don’t want to lie to myself about that, but I also think that even though people are seeing thousands and thousands of Haitians on borders of the States and other countries, there are still 12 million people back there. One thing that was extremely important for me was to make people remember that not everyone is leaving. Some are not leaving because they can’t, and some decided to stay because it’s their country. I think this aspect of the story is often put aside because people are more focused on the drama, because drama is news, but the other side of the story requires one to dive more into people’s daily lives. So, I said maybe a film can do that. I think we tried to explore both sides of the story—of those who left and those who were still there.

CM: What were some of the challenges that you confronted when filming, in terms of the security situation?

GG: We had three months of lockdown before I made the film. It was a political lockdown, because it was the end of 2019 and for three months it was so bad outside that nobody could go out and then at some point people started to go out, because you know people in Haiti, like here, they live outside. All the businesses, the local shops and everything are outside, so if people are not outside, they are starving. At some point people were like, whether we die inside or outside, we are just going outside. When I saw them going outside, I knew we had to make this film right now. We managed to stay and be alert and year and have people monitor the situation for us.

CM: What are your thoughts about the mass deportations and expulsions from the US and some of the images we have seen with border guards on horses?

GG: I’m not even angry because I’ve never expected them to be different, they’ve never been different with Haitians. I’m madder with us for still thinking that we should expect something from the US. I’m just mad that we let them create that chaotic situation in Haiti where we have to go again to them only for them to treat us like that.

CM: What are your thoughts about foreign aid and involvement in Haiti and the impact of it?

GG: I think at some point it was [Bill] Clinton who said we are “the backyard of the United States.” We are the second country where they dump all the rice that they have after Mexico, so it’s not about love, it’s about interest. Every time an organization or whatever comes, it’s about whatever they can get, if they can get something they are going to stay longer, if they cannot, they won’t. Right after the earthquake, we had thousands of NGOs. We had an earthquake recently, and we could barely count them.

CM: The film begins with Freda’s flashback of child sexual abuse and a lot of it is about trauma—what has the response been like in Haiti?

GG: This first scene—they asked me to take it out so many times.

CM: Who asked you to take it out?

GG: Everybody, literally everybody. Financers would tell me this and, of course, I would be like no, [Freda] is about trauma within a family but also trauma within a country that has been destroyed over and over again. It’s about a population that has been destroyed and destroyed over and over again—mentally and emotionally. For me I want anybody that watches this film to feel what it is, even for one person, to live with the trauma on a daily basis, and that’s why I had to introduce in that way—to get it in your skin, under your skin, and in your system, so that you are confused and uncomfortable like Freda is.

CM: What is the essential message of the film, and what do you hope people walk away with?

GG: It’s a film for Haitians by Haitians. I think for once we wanted to see ourselves, the way we see ourselves in the country and not how people choose to see us. Freda is a mirror for us and also a window for anyone outside of Haiti who wants to understand what the oldest free island, free republic in the world is almost 218 years later and where we are with that freedom we fought for.

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