Freda, the Creole-language narrative feature debut of actor-director Gessica Généus, is a film that hinges on a dilemma, a fraught existential crisis demanding resolution: whether to flee a country and renounce an identity, during their uneasy metamorphoses, or to stay and evolve in conjunction. Anthropology student Freda (Néhémie Bastien) lives in Port-au-Prince, working her family’s grocery store; her artist boyfriend Yeshua (Juancito Jean) wants her to leave with him for the Dominican Republic, where life, he thinks, will be easier. An evocative portrait of family foregrounds and exemplifies the Haiti of 2018, its vividly personal scope contextualized within and projected onto a nation’s political zeitgeist, of a young and imminent generation radicalized through economic and cultural stagnation. Filmed in the tumultuous present, Freda is a small miracle in itself, capturing a space of compelling immediacy through its interrogation of a national identity that continues to bear the traces of its violent colonial legacy.
Left by the French in their wake, this legacy endures in places large and small, more recent and ravaging than the world would let on. After its independence in 1804, Haiti continued to service the colonial coffers for over a century with the modern equivalent of USD 21 billion, forcibly making up for property — slaves, plantations — considered “lost” to the French; even in emancipation, exploitation remains in full swing. The white man’s influence extends to Haiti’s culture as well: Freda’s younger sister Esther (Djanaïna François) bleaches her skin and straightens her hair to fit a beauty standard not her own, desiring her body less than she does the desire that men project onto it. The scars of these historical incursions have not quite healed, their anxieties transmitted between kin, across generations. Much like the anger Freda feels for her mother when she feels helpless against the seismic violence around them, the reverse holds equally true: mothers warn daughters of the world they will inherit, a burden that will, some distant day in the future, be lifted off their shoulders. And lift the daughters shall. Despite the label of luxury placed upon the prospect of good education, it nonetheless remains central to the lives of youths, igniting impassioned discussions of and for their future, a vision less of the individual and more towards collective realization. What translates to “if we have to cut heads to save our country, then so be it” is scrawled across a classroom board, prompting arguments on what they need most: uncompromising revolt or democratic change. Even when the professor tries to pivot the debate away from the former, he receives an angry retort from the students; that they do not seek politics, but it is politics, rather, that seeks them.
It’s not uncommon for a film that approaches something so expansive with the intimacy of a familial and individual setting to become hobbled by the latter’s myopic scope, but Généus generally sidesteps this pitfall through a keenly aware engagement of the political. Conversations on generational traits and contradictions are set at eye-level, democratizing its headspace for a viewer whose engagement is predicated on their acknowledgement of these concerns. A protest sequence, shot with a free documentative hand, acquires just as much weight as Freda’s classroom scenes. Likewise, revolutionary sentiment and its attempted silencing never remains tethered to its intellectual and activist nodes; at an art gallery, white tourists comment on the prices of what they deem “just garbage put together”, appreciating the perfunctory beauty of these transformed leftovers but reluctant to recognize their forebears’ complicity in their production. (For Yeshua, these tourists are no better than pirates, pillaging his art for signifiers of a revolutionary end-point but disregarding their contextual nuances altogether.) These direct engagements with the audience comprise the narrative’s firmest sections, while beyond these, some of its quotidian backdrops seem tangential to Freda’s line of activism. Even so, the film rarely loses focus, even in its warmer tinctures; Karine Aulnette’s camera lights up the features of her black women protagonists, visually embodying the core of Généus’ frustratingly authentic history of emancipation. It’s a frustration rooted in both realism and aestheticism, and arguably more convincingly developed in the latter — as the consumption of art in various circles centers around the belief that its inherent value lies less in artistic ingenuity, but more in its cultural capital, that the only way for an outsider to achieve some semblance of breakthrough is to allow their suffering to be exploited. Here, Freda tries to step ahead of its own reception, acknowledging that it might tend to be seen only for its exotic Haitian origins onboard an international stage, and (somewhat overtly) asking to be considered on the terms of its own merit. Even so, it rarely permits commiseration, for lamenting has never discouraged the colonizers; instead, the proceedings refract a celebratory spirit, understanding that this is the best way to articulate and advocate for the nation’s artistic and political future.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.