Credit: Art of the Real / Film at Lincoln Center
by Zachary Goldkind Film

This House — Miryam Charles

April 6, 2022

Miryam Charles’ feature debut is a member of the final Talent to Watch cohort, prior to the industry intervention that would reshape it. Talent to Watch is a Telefilm funding initiative, seeking to fund the feature debuts of artists across the nation, allowing each filmmaker CAD 125,000 to organize independent production. The initiative would fund up to 50 films per year. Over the pandemic, Telefilm has reorganized its infrastructure, doubling the budgetary limit from 125k to 250k, but over halving the number of projects that are green lit. These changes came in the face of industry complaints that artists were exploiting the labor and time of filmworkers and rental houses; of course, these complaints are incredibly valid, though you can find similar grievances on any number of professional/industry sets. Were one to hazard a guess as to why these criticisms were so briskly harnessed and weaponized to limit access to resources — in a program meant to expand precisely that — a fair assumption would be to cite the fetishism at the core the Canadian industry to centralize and moralize authority. And so, the program once promising to widen the possibilities of a Canadian cinematic landscape has very anti-climactically bent the knee to its gatekeepers.

All this context is worth mentioning because Charles’ film offers a beautiful example of the type of film Talent to Watch should be seeking to represent it. Without being privy to the working conditions of the set, it seems that the film Charles set out to create is one far away from the industrial mimicry that the majority of filmmakers offered these funds so often articulate. This House is an elegiac fragmentation of the spaces ghosts once were, and Charles constructs of her limited resources a vivid lamentation, meditating on the violent loss of her cousin now 15 years prior, seeking to probe the schism such an event set in motion between the security of a familiar homestead and the whispered threat of vulnerability that an entire outside world evokes. To emphasize this estrangement, a magical realist bent is introduced within the construct of a post-Brechtian cinematic language. Sets are built of the rooms in which this tragedy unfurls, suggesting a theatricality that subverts our instinct to passively engage with the narrative at hand. These rooms shift in their set decoration to emphasize their anomaly: Dogville-like minimalism is juxtaposed with a fully textured interior whose floor is landscaped like a garden, while the kind of palpable security which one’s residence can often offer is absent. But such stage-adjacent techniques to aesthetic construction pose merely a Brechtian reflexivity of the medium; it’s in the reconvening of cinematic sensibilities where the post-Brechtian element enters. Punctuating the structure of this play is a collection of patient cross-dissolves, striking double-exposures, and methodical cross-cuts with Haitian landscapes. Initially throwing us off of a normative spectator position, This House seems intent on giving primacy to the apparatus: first breaking down narrative agency through the theatre, to then exhibit a vigor only possible through the cinema, an apparatus, itself, of ghosts, of time stunted and forced to repeat itself over and over again for all eternity. The ghosts of Charles’ past and the specters of cinema find resounding companionship.

Canadian artists must seek forms and structures that come in conflict with the inflating hegemony of industry-bred visual literacy. Independent artists that Telefilm sought to uplift are unfurling the labor concerns that the industry has been exploiting toward its own self-interest. By emulating the infrastructure of industry, in both the organization of work on set and the very aesthetic sensibility being expressed through the work, these emerging artists are exposing the failures of a system that has quickly swept in to protect its image, countering this burgeoning problem by cutting off its mobility, by enforcing, once again, limited access. It’s not that artists have no sense of how to properly use this limited budget resourcefully, it’s that they are taught not to. With This House, Miryam Charles offers a vision that rebukes this hegemony and proposes how new and idiosyncratic forms can configure under these restraints. She has made the first film to come out of this program that proves what an understanding of your contexts, as properly siphoned into your artistic expression, can produce. Regardless if at times the film becomes a bit too literal in its intentions, expressing ideas more bluntly than necessary, what we ultimately have here is a beautiful object that it’s not a stretch to forward as one of the most integral Canadian narrative productions in over a decade.

Published as part of Art of the Real 2022 — Dispatch 2.