Sometimes, at the Cannes Film Festival, the news echoes the films shown in cinemas. This was the case in 2016 with ‘Aquarius’ by Kleber Mendonca Filhos. This film tells the story of a sexagenarian fighting against real estate developers who try to drive her out of the boutique building where she is the last inhabitant. It had been screened soon after Dilma Rousseff was ousted from power. The feature film had thus become a symbol of resistance against this ‘coup d’état’. On the red carpet, the film crew appeared, all in rhinestones and sequins, but with signs in hand displaying their support for the former president.
This year, as the situation in Haiti re-hit the headlines after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, it is the Haitian film ‘Freda’, by director Gessica Géneus, which resonates particularly with the news. But on the red carpet, no political slogans. The team appeared smiling, dancing to the beat of an Afrobeat track.
This lightness, but also anger, radiates from the main character of the film, Freda, played by Nehemiah Bastien. This student, with a big, warm smile and a lively mind, lives with her mother, brother and sister in a popular district of Port-au-Prince. Freda juggles classes, housework and the small family shop while her brother, Moses, stays at home – when he’s not squandering family savings – and her little sister steps out right to left. looking for a boyfriend.
A routine punctuated by the violent street demonstrations that erupt regularly in the Haitian capital. ‘We don’t run after politics, it is politics that runs after us,’ a classmate told Freda during one of their frequent debates about the torments of their country.
And this political instability will catch up with the student. When her boyfriend nearly gets killed in his sleep, there are only two options left: flee the country together or face this chaos.
This first film by Gessica Géneus shows the resilience of these women in a country plagued by violence, corruption, and a colonial past which has left them with constant injunctions to bleach their skin, straighten their hair or even suppress their hair. Creole accent …
France 24: Is Freda’s family a microcosm of the problems and difficulties faced by Haitians, especially women ?
Gessica Généus:The idea was to make people understand as much as possible while remaining in the privacy of this family. I had to deal with political issues at a young age, not fully realizing that this was the source of my setbacks. Often people do not realize the weight of politics in their daily life. They think of a curse or all kinds of things, but they fail to realize, in fact, it was choices, political decisions that got them in this state.
I wanted to show how the daily life of people is influenced by decisions of members of the government who are very, very, far from them. This is what we experience on a daily basis. We get up in the morning and we can’t go out because there is a demonstration, whereas the day before we were with friends and we were laughing. Or we take our child to school at 7 a.m. and at 10 a.m. we are told to come and get him because there is tear gas everywhere, or because someone has just been murdered or kidnapped. in front of the school. It’s not just crime, it’s the lack of a rule of law. There is no government that makes decisions to improve your life.
A character in the film says, ‘We are not chasing politics, it is politics chasing us’. Your film talks about the impossibility of living a peaceful youth.
No one wants to be constantly in the fight, in precariousness. It’s exhausting, it’s unbearable to be fighting for the minimum all the time. Here we are talking about eating, simply, being able to wake up in peace without having spent a night hearing gunshots in a neighborhood nearby. It is a country that has 70% of young people. To handicap the youth to such an extent is to mortgage the future of the country. And all of this is done on purpose. They are literally murdering a generation and preventing it from believing that it will be possible to make things better.
One theme seems to come up often, that of the negation of Haitian history and culture.
Haitian culture is very present and at the same time we are very much in denial. We have been taught that it is because of certain parts of this culture that we are less accepted. When all of our life we have been told that we were the oppressed, the marginalized, that we would not have a future because we did not have the right skin color or that we did not come from the right family. .. At one point we say to ourselves that we have to detach ourselves from it and do what we can to comply with what people expect of us. But, our culture is there, it inhabits us.
It is often said that Haitians are 70% Catholic, 70% Protestant and 100% voodoo. Voodoo is everywhere, you can be in denial as much as you want, but it’s there, it’s present and it’s strong. This is a dilemma for many Haitians: if you go into voodoo you are the devil, you will not go to heaven, while you are already in hell in Haiti, it is still mortgaging two futures. So often people think that if there is no future here, they will work for the future elsewhere. But they get completely torn, they try to get rid of voodoo and go to another culture. This is what creates schizophrenia, cultural bipolarity, which sometimes goes as far as the expression of madness.
You have a look of empathy and tenderness on the characters, I think of Freda’s mother in particular. Can we say that she embodies the tragedy of a country that has failed to protect its children ?
That’s exactly it, to be torn between the need to protect and the need for survival, and to make sometimes extremely painful choices towards survival, without realizing that the traumas that we allow to exist, we continue to carry them all the time. long. And sometimes, it is these traumas that become handicaps and prevent us from fully growing as a nation. At some point, we will have to look this mother in the face, the mother of the film and the mother country, and say to each other what we accept from her and what we do not. do not accept, and what should be eradicated because we do not want future generations to suffer this.
‘Freda’ is also, overwhelmingly, a story of women’s courage and resilience. Is it also a film of hope ?
Absolutely. People tell themselves that they want hope right now, concretely. In the sense that suddenly a hero comes to save us, or a political leader appears out of nowhere. But sometimes the hope is also quite simply to realize that we are there, that we are alive, that there is still space to create that future that we want. Of course, it takes an energy that sometimes we don’t have, because we’re exhausted from this daily quest for survival. But we’re still here.
The festival was overtaken by the tragic news of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. How did you experience it ?
I was angry, because it’s been so long since we have been crying for help. Two days before his death, several people were murdered in a popular district of Port-au-Prince, including a well-known activist. There was not a word for him. Why this silence, this denial? It is often said, as long as it stays in working-class neighborhoods, it doesn’t concern me. But at some point, it’s going to knock on your door. And it made me angry that he [Jovenel Moïse] failed to protect not only his people, but his own family as well.
I was already at the Festival when it happened, I thought about my friends who may be even more in danger, because we don’t know where this murder came from. Maybe they’ll want to kill other people, take advantage of this chaos to raid. All of this generates even more emotional insecurity.
Apart from this tragic news, how is your festival going and what is the feeling in Haiti? ?
People are happy that we are here, they can experience it through us. It also feels good that we talk about Haiti differently in the media. I can’t remember the last time I saw an article on Haiti that was positive. It seems our life is a succession of disasters and political turmoil. For once, with ‘Freda’ and the whole team there, we dare to talk about us.
We live things fully, like yesterday on the red carpet. We struggle to find the energy despite everything to stay in this positivity. A first in Cannes should be celebrated, lived to the fullest. We did it here, they did it with us in Haiti. We send photos, videos, people feed on them and follow us step by step in this festival.