It was the end of another dark period in Haiti’s worsening crisis. For months, nothing had been moving. Schools were closed. Streets were inflamed with burning barricades. And a rising tide of violence in poor, working-class Port-au-Prince neighborhoods amid political gridlock was becoming the norm.
Gessica Généus, an actress and filmmaker who had become increasingly politically active on social media as part of a burgeoning grassroots movement demanding another fate for Haiti, decided what she was doing wasn’t working. It was time to express herself differently.
And this is how “Freda,” the Creole-language film that five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola has decided to join as executive producer and spearhead an Academy Awards campaign for Best International Feature Film, was born.
“I had to step back and reanalyze how I was fighting. I said, ‘I’m a filmmaker and I can’t neglect that,’ ” said Généus, 37, who premiered the film at the Cannes Film Festival in France in July. “I asked myself, what can I do to have people see the country in a way they had not seen before? So I made this film and placed it in 2018 because I want people to see Haiti as it is right now.”
Freda tells the story of a group of young women, including the title character, who live in a poor neighborhood of Port-au-Prince and who want to believe in the future of their country. Their daily lives are punctuated by gunshots, burning tires and a precarious living situation that make it hard to envision anything different. Freda, who is studying anthropology at the university but is being encouraged by her mother, Jeannette, to quit her studies and find a job, must decide whether to stay in Haiti or leave.
Jeannette, a single mother, supports Freda and her two siblings through the income from a small street shop. All find themselves at a crossroad of choices they must make based on their needs and values.
Told from a female perspective, the film offers a rare view of Haiti that outsiders don’t often see, but Haitians have been increasingly faced with as the crisis-prone Caribbean nation deals with a collapsed economy, crippling political gridlock and now rising crime and kidnappings by armed gangs.
Though fictional, the film draws from Généus’ own experiences as a Haitian woman who grew up in a poor neighborhood, and who was increasingly becoming frustrated over the country’s backward slide and lack of support for the protests over allegations that government officials had embezzled nearly $2 billion in aid from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil program, which was supposed to fund social programs. At one point in the film, Freda and her friends debate the benefits of protests.
It also draws on the experiences of her mother, a longtime democracy fighter who had been quick to join a protest and help Haitians navigate the ballot box but had started to lose hope that anything would change.
The film could have been set at any point in Haiti’s recent turbulent history of the last three decades. But Généus said she intentionally chose 2018 just when the wave of protests tied to the Kot kob PetroKaribe a? (Where is the PetroCaribe money?) were beginning to take root.
Months later in July of 2019, Haiti experienced a pre-COVID lockdown when the tensions escalated into what became known as “peyi locke,” after the government’s sharp increase in fuel prices triggered violent protests and a months-long lockdown of the entire country.
It was at the tail end of the lockdown, as the country timidly began reopening, that Généus began shooting “Freda,” intentionally using a group of unknown actors in order to not distract from the film’s message and authenticity.
“Despite all of the insecurity, I said, ‘There is still space for us to exist in the streets,’ ” she said, recalling having to abandon a shoot in downtown Port-au-Prince after coming across the corpse of a young boy and not telling the crew out of fear of discouraging them. “I not only had to manage the streets, but I had to manage my crew emotionally.”
During another shoot, they had to film a dance scene amid six hours of on-and-off gunshots.
Annie Nocenti, a filmmaker and critic, said “Freda” feels like it’s Haiti’s moment. Voting for the Academy Awards entries begin Friday, and there is a Dec. 21 deadline for when the short list of nominees will be selected.
“Even though there were films coming out of Haiti made by men … sometimes focused on the more exploitative aspects of Haiti, like the Vodou, the Serpent and the Rainbow, what’s so powerful about this film is that it’s the female gaze, which in the landscape of films is finally having its moment,” Nocenti said.
Nocenti, who once lived in Haiti where she taught emerging filmmakers, said “Freda” “takes on all of the intimate details of Haitian culture like skin-lightening, women being dismissed … that Cinderella mythos of waiting for Prince Charming to come save you out of despair.”
“The epic of Haiti’s history is there, but it’s in little tiny pieces throughout the film, which I think is just a masterful way to put something against the historic epic but have it retain so much intimacy,” she said.
Coppola also arrived at a similar conclusion after seeing the film.
“ ‘Freda’ is the kind of cinematic experience I value most: a journey into a way of life not normally accessible to me, providing insight about the real people who live in it. Gessica Généus’ film is an unforgettable jewel told with simple eloquence, beautifully memorable performances, and genuine feeling that few films ever achieve,” said the director of the 1972 American gangster film “The Godfather.”
“This glimpse of contemporary life in Haiti shows a people who refuse to be defined by their tragic moments and who thrive with good hearts and best intentions,” he added in a statement his team released and was first reported by Deadline. “It is my humble honor to serve as the executive producer of “Freda” in support of Gessica and the wonderfully creative and artistic film community in Haiti.”
How Coppola discovered the film is as much a story about persistence as it is about his quiet support of Haitian cinema over the years. He was one of the very first supporters of the Ciné Institute, the film school in Jacmel founded in 2008 by documentary film director and producer David Belle. Nocenti, who is friends with Coppola, helped connect him and Belle, who asked the director if he could watch “Freda.”
“Within 12 hours, he watched it and sent me back this glowing endorsement,” said Belle, noting that the director rarely attaches his name to anything.
Belle says the film is an example of an artist putting her passion into artistic therapy. But looking at the history of movie-making in Haiti, which has suffered because of the country’s political turbulence and violence, Belle said “Freda” is a breakthrough.
“It stands out in such a unique way; it was shot during yet another very difficult time, and she decided to shoot it in the country and she decided to shoot it in Creole, and she used a lot of local crew supplemented by some experts from France,” Belle said. “For me, knowing Haiti, it resonated in authenticity, and for people who don’t even know the country, it resonates in authenticity.”
Haiti once had a vibrant film industry, yet today doesn’t have a working movie theater. The last was destroyed in the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
Still, Haitian filmmakers persist, against a backdrop of protests, gang violence, kidnappings and political gridlock. The challenges have meant that insurance costs are high, forcing filmmakers to fund-raise or film in the neighboring Dominican Republic or in France, and call it Haiti. Earlier this year, a group of young Haitian filmmakers from Muska Films making a movie about kidnappings saw real life imitate art when two of their Dominican crew members, brothers Maicol Enrique and Antonio Campusano, along with their Haitian translator, were kidnapped and held for ransom for several days.
The last renaissance of the country’s film industry, Belle said, was in the 2000s, when Haitian director Richard Sénécal was making movies and Généus was the star, beginning at age 17 in the 2001 Haitian film ”Barikad.”
Belle’s Ciné Institute was born out of the Jacmel Film Festival, and the goal was to have a moment like this, in which an acclaimed Haitian film had been made in Haiti by Haitians.
“Had the conditions of the country been better, I think there would have been a lot more films coming out of Haiti and maybe some more rivaling ‘Freda,’ ” he said.
For now, the film is generating excitement, with Généus setting her eyes not only on an Oscar submission and perhaps a win, but with more film festival appearances, including the Miami Film Festival, where she last appeared as an actress alongside Haiti-born actor Jimmy Jean-Louis in the 2017 migrant smuggling film “Cargo.”
At the Cannes Film festival, where ”Freda” was screened a week after the assassination of Haiti’s president, the film was well received. It received a special mention and was the first Haiti film screened since 1993, when the Haitian-French drama “L’Homme sur les quais” (The Man by the Shore) by Haiti-born filmmaker Raoul Peck was shown. “Freda” was also awarded second prize at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival.
”Freda” is only the second Haitian film to be an entry in the Academy Awards’ International Feature category. In 2017, Haiti-born director and one-time Miami resident Guetty Felin’s “Ayiti Mon Amour” became the country’s first entry for the foreign film category at the Oscars.
Généus said the film, while telling the story of the women she grew up with, speaks to how she sees herself in Haiti. One must be “obsessed,” she said, to get anything done in the country. While it’s hard, it’s not impossible to build something in Haiti, she insists.
“Everybody who manages to do this, they nourish this dream,” Généus said. “All of us cannot leave the country; there have to be people who remain to nurture the dream that as Haitians, we can succeed inside the country.”
This story was originally published December 10, 2021 6:30 AM.