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From Haitian Filmmaker Gessica Généus: “Freda”, the Calm Within the Storm

Freda (Nehemie Bastien) is the eldest daughter of Jeannette (Fabiola Remy), a single mother who owns a little grocery store in Port-au-Prince. She is expected to carry the heavy load of the day-to-day tasks, while her sister Esther (Djanaina Francois) wishes to get married to a wealthy man, and her brother Moïse (Cantave Kervern) wants to emigrate in search of a better fortune. Meanwhile, Haiti is plunged into corruption and poverty and is destabilized by violent protests. It’s 2018.

Despite her mother’s preferential treatment toward Esther and Moïse, or the fact that her mother asks her to quit going to the university and just work some more – Freda’s loyalty to her family is unwavering. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she is the one keeping them together.

Esther accepts a marriage proposal by a public official whom she barely knows. Freda cautions her that she may not be happy, and Esther rebukes her by saying that happiness is not what she is looking for. Besides, she has her mom’s approval, both of them are convinced that this man’s money is the solution to all their problems and insecurities.

Esther gets married to the public official despite Freda’s warnings and is able to support Moïse’s plan to emigrate. Yet not too long after the wedding, she comes home disheveled and bruised, abused by her husband for having dared to go out on her own.


When Jeannette scolds Esther for not being a good wife, Freda steps in, for the first time openly and vehemently standing for what is right, in solidarity with her sister. This turn of events, however, does not lead to further conflict; on the contrary, in the face of intense suffering, Freda can now rid herself of expectations and accept her kin for who they are.


What motivated Gessica Généus to make Freda – which competed in the last edition of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and has attracted the support of Francis Ford Coppola – was the “desire to see people that I know on screen … a reality that I perceived growing up in Haiti, that I felt didn’t exist [on screen].”

When the riots against government corruption erupted in Haiti three years ago, Généus decided to place her long-brewing story in the current situation. She felt that her story “needs to be a part of what’s going on right now.” She didn’t want to hide it in another time period, nor did she want it to be about “them” and “not us.”

Généus’ fierce directness was manifested in the way the film was made as well. True to her previous experience as a documentarian, she made an effort not to control the scenes and let her actors be free to “throw out” any lines that didn’t work for them. “Of course, it is a controlled reality,” she chuckles. “It’s fiction, scripted and everything, but to me, it is closer to documentary than pure fiction.”

In fact, documentary footage of the Haitian protests – which Généus borrowed from friends or had documented herself – was then used in the editing room, integrating it into the film.

The story of Haiti is a story of constant struggle. “It’s unfortunate that I cannot tell you that [the situation] is better,” Généus confirms. Kidnappings are rampant, especially in the last two years and politics seem to be a lost cause. Democracy has no chance “with that guy,” says Généus referring to the current state leader. “It just doesn’t make sense – they are forcing us to hold elections with criminals, literally,” she reiterates.

For a country as small as Haiti and one that is as close to the US, autonomy is a complex affair. “We’ve always been part of the geopolitical dynamic [between South and North America],” explains the director.

Furthermore, Haiti has functioned as a bridge between the US, Jamaica, Colombia, and other South American countries, facilitating the illegal drug trade. “The person that is in power almost has the status of a drug lord,” Généus reveals. “They need to keep an eye on all the big transactions that are happening. But it’s not to help the country, not to make [trafficking] stop, but to be able to bargain and to be able to do whatever they need to do within that situation.”

The people of Haiti feel caught in a pernicious sociopolitical situation, while, at the same time, they are wary of international aid efforts. International aid is based on “the same concept as colonization,” the director offers. “When you come with the mission to help – you need to listen to [the people], you need to analyze the situation and see what is needed and what is not, and how you are going to accommodate a certain type of culture that is completely different to yours.”

Unfortunately, this is not the way the process usually goes in Haiti with NGOs and other well-intentioned organizations. “It’s always the same pattern of ‘you guys are completely stupid and unable, so you’re going to shut up and we’re going to [help you],’” Généus informs. “And it’s not only the ‘white saviors,’” she adds. “It’s also Haitians from the diaspora that come [to Haiti] with the same mentality.”

“You think that you’re here to give something that is better than anything else, and you have trouble accepting that it might be good for you, but it might be the most poisonous thing for the person that you’re giving it to,” she goes on. This mindset, topped by the fact that the government is corrupt and incapable of rising to the occasion, leads to an impasse and a sense of helplessness in each and every ordinary Haitian – a sentiment clearly reflected throughout Freda.

Yet, Freda, the heroine, fights like a Spartan. She fights for a double cause: as a Haitian and as a woman. The question that Généus poses in the film is not whether but how to do it; how to achieve autonomy.

“The victimization of women has put us in a position where we don’t know anything, we don’t do anything, we don’t decide anything, and we are not actors,” she expounds.

Nevertheless, “the movement of wanting to have control over their lives is there,” Généus adds. “This movement, of course, is hitting walls all the time, but [it] is there. I wanted it to exist, whether [Freda’s] choices make sense for people or not.” The results of their actions are of less significance than the fact that the women are “not lethargic,” she points out. “We are there, in movement, in motion – constantly.”

Généus takes a hard look at what it means to live as a woman. In one scene, Freda is looking at herself in the mirror, and as she’s putting lipstick on, she bursts into tears. “When you go through a trauma like being raped, you have trouble knowing what kind of woman you can be,” the director explains.

“This is one of the ways you live with trauma,” she goes on. “It’s a discomfort that stays [inside] and that pollutes every aspect of your femininity – your relationship with your body, your relationship with what others say should be an expression of femininity. You don’t know if you want to be seen – actually, you don’t want to be seen, you want to disappear.”

But Généus doesn’t want her character to capitulate; rather, she wants her to find a way to accept her “femininity, in this broken body that is [hers] and that [she] has to live with.”

When asked what she wants most, Freda says “peace of mind.” Her answer, however, is no chimera. “The capacity to transform whatever is burning inside into something productive,” confirms Généus, “is where we should be at right now as a nation.”

“We’ve done it,” she continues. “We’ve expressed our anger fully, with all the violence that comes with it and all the damage that [anger] can create. But we’ve never really tried the other way round. Because it’s hard… When you’re in pain, all you want is to express what you have inside as loud as possible.”

But the lesson to be had now in Haiti – and indeed in the whole world – is “how to scream in silence.”   It is a lesson Généus herself had to learn in the process of becoming a filmmaker. “You want to say a lot, but you also want to be heard. And that’s the part that we sometimes forget. We think that people will listen because our pain is legitimate – and it’s not true!”

She created a heroine that would “gather – not push – people around her,” and that would “accept them where they are, let them go if they need to and let them come back. It’s a hard process,” she says, “but I think it is necessary; it is an expression that needs to exist right now.”

“Whether in your [private life] or by what you make – a film or whatever it is – to create a safe environment has become something extremely important,” Généus underlines. “To generate peace, generate areas where people can just breathe… Because life will hit you anyway!” she adds with a laugh.

“It’s not an obvious way,” the director admits smiling. “It’s not that you watch Freda and automatically you feel free and light … it’s a different type of calm – it’s the type of calm within the storm.”

Not surprisingly, Freda maintains a calm strength from the beginning to the end of the film. “I wanted her to stand very firm in the choices that she was making because they were hers. I didn’t want the narrative of her having to do what she does because she has no choices,” Généus mentions. “I wanted her to be very conscious of the choices that she makes.”

Just like her character, Gessica Généus is a brave director who will continue to confront the suffering of her people and of women in her own way, relentlessly searching and finding the calm within the storm.