Freda is a film that grabs you and shows that despite the turmoil in Haiti, there is an insatiable yearning to move forward. Gessica Généus’ feature debut is a staggeringly powerful piece of cinema. Unforgettable.
Freda (Néhémie Bastien) lives with her family in a popular neighbourhood in Haiti. They survive with their little street food shop. The precariousness and violence of their daily life push them to do everything they can to escape their situation.
One of Gessica Généus focuses is on the shade of a person’s skin in her feature debut. We see Freda, a darker-skinned woman, gets told by her mother, Jeanette (Fabiola Rémy), to find employment, to ditch the fantasy of education and merely accept that her position in Haitian society is of a lower level. Whereas Freda’s younger sister Esther (Djanaïna François) is a fairer-skinned woman, who Jeanette pushes her to marry young to someone of wealth so that she may escape living a life Jeanette has.
While it is devastating to see a mother push her daughters towards completely different goals solely because of the shade of their skin. Where Freda resists, Esther welcomingly takes. She uses chemical cream to lighten her skin to be more attractive to potential wealthy suitors. Esther is using that nudge her mother has given her and running with it. There are aims for Esther, and they will ensure that she gets the best possible chance to reach time. So enraptured with what her mother has fed her for years, she states that she doesn’t need to be happy to be married. It is being comfortable and enjoying his wealth that matters. Something in stark contrast to Freda.
Having Freda be the one out of her family to want to remain in the country, to be one of the people who help it find the right path and progress, is rather beautiful. Her boyfriend Yeshua (Jean Jean) wants them to leave for greener pastures, to live in a society where they can both be respected and not be disregarded solely because of the darkness of their skin. Her mother clearly sees no hope of progress for people like Freda.
But she has underestimated the strength of her daughter. For this woman isn’t keen to relent to the patriarchal structure that her sister and mother are so willing to subside to. When Yeshua pleads for her to move with him to Santo Domingo, you see the pain on Freda as clear as day. She loves this man; she wants to be with him. But she cannot leave her country even with the violence that endlessly surrounds her. She can’t just up and leave.
Jeanette herself is a wonderfully written character who intrigues you throughout. A woman who has experienced the miserable patriarchy her country forces onto women. You fully believe that she believes what she is doing is right. To set her daughter’s lives on a course that will hurt them the least. With all of that, you would think that Freda is a grim film. It is almost the opposite, as Généus makes some well-placed moves throughout.
Généus makes the bold move of interspersing Freda with archive footage from the very demonstrations and protests that her film covers. While these protests did indeed turn violent, she skews away from that, perhaps to show a more hopeful outlook for her country. That violence isn’t always necessary and that the same goals can be accomplished by talking and having peaceful demonstrations. We see celebrations, vibrancy, and life fill the film when possible. Yes, there is serious trouble going on in the country, but Généus shows us that the people can be the ones to save it.
Freda is a film that tackles so many topics in such a short time, from domestic and community violence. To the challenges women have in remaining in education, to how even now there is a prejudice to give a preference to fair-skinned black people in their own community. As if they are somehow the best they have to offer society. With Yeshua, we even cross upon migration. How he has seemingly thrived after leaving the country.
For a film that tackles so much, you would be wary that it accidentally weighs itself down over its ambition. Happily, this is not the case, with Généus perfectly balancing her film to give us just enough to ponder after the credits have rolled. It, again, is such a bold choice for a first-time filmmaker, but she handles it all in her stride. There is a potent rawness that attracts you to the film, much like the country itself. We can see the cracks in how Haiti is and has been run for generations now, yet the spirit of the people keeps it alive. Many decide to leave for new pastures, and for those that stay, sometimes only violence resides. It feels as if there is an ongoing attempt to rid Haiti of its valuable culture.
Généus shows us that isn’t always going to be the case. In those classroom scenes, we see students debate the place of French and English in their learning so they can progress. However, Creole is right there. As we watch, we understand that while it is advantageous to learn those other languages, you should never forget the importance of your own. Like Esther and her skin cream, we are shown that there is too much of an urgency to assimilate with cultures outside of their own country, which is not only a Haiti problem but one seen in countless other countries, sadly, usually ones where they were colonised.
This is what makes the film so striking and so important. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of films, but what it touches upon and the narrative is what drives the film and makes you take notice. Not only just take notice but ponder for a long time afterwards. It is an excellent piece of cinema that needs to be seen. You could talk endlessly about all of these issues that have been raised by our filmmaker and still have more to discuss. In the end, that is what you want in art. To have your brain lit up and to learn.
Freda gives us a look at Port-au-Prince and Haiti as a whole in a way that we may not have thought about before. It is a film that doesn’t offer solutions but shows us the truth of the world in, which communities in Haiti experience and have been experiencing. However, if more people Freda appear in those communities, then the cause is not lost. People like Freda are not helpless. They are active, and eventually, through strength and their spirit, their community will thrive again. What a film.
Freda is showing at the Visions of Haiti Film Season at the Barbican Cinema on Saturday 28 October at 15:30. Tickets are on sale now.
For more information about the season please click here.
I am but a small website in this big wide world. As much as I would love to make this website a big and wonderful entity. That would bring in more costs. So, for now all I hope is to make Upcoming On Screen self-sufficient. Well enough to where any website fees are less of a worry for me in the future. You can support the website below…
Our other method if through the wonderful Buy us a Coffee feature, but seeing as we are not the biggest fans of coffee, a pizza will do! We keep it fairly small change on that as well and it allows you to give just a one off payment, so no need to worry about that monthly malarky! We even have a little icon on the website for you to find it and help us out with the running of the website.
You can support us in a variety of ways (other than that wonderful word of mouth) and those lovely follows. If you are so inclined to help out then you can support us via Patreon, find our link here! We don’t want to ask much from you, so for now we have limited our tiers to £1.50 and £3.50. These will of course grow the more we plan to do here at Upcoming On Screen.