‘Freda’ Sees Haiti Through a Black Feminist Lens

Gessica Généus’s feature film debut tells a touching story about a young woman’s struggle to find hope in a country full of despair and violence

BY Terence Trouillot in Film , Opinion | 07 FEB 22

In the summer of 2018, Haitians in Port-au-Prince took to the streets in protest at the ruinous fuel price hikes incurred after Venezuela could no longer supply the country with oil. A decade earlier, Haiti had joined Petrocaribe – an alliance started by Venezuela that gave oil subsidies to participating Caribbean member states – in the hope of redressing the country’s budget deficit and helping to pay for much-needed infrastructure, education reform and social programmes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. However, in 2017, a senate investigation discovered that Haitian government officials had been embezzling money from the oil programme between 2008 and 2016, provoking the ire of the public, who demanded retribution and called for the resignation of then president Jovenel Moïse – who was assassinated in 2021. Footage of these protests – demonstrators expressing their outrage, marchers flooding major thoroughfares, burning tyres blocking roads – are interspersed, almost seamlessly, throughout Gessica Généus’s feature debut, Freda (2021): a touching story about a young woman’s struggle to find hope in a country full of despair and violence.

Freda, 2021, movie still
Freda, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Sanosi Productions

In Freda, Généus – a long-time actress, singer and filmmaker – delivers an impressive filmic narrative that paints a vivid picture of her impoverish nation, while never succumbing to sensationalist tropes or poverty porn. Instead, the film often lingers on the more tender moments of Haitian quotidian life: students attending school, folks picking up groceries, friends going to the club. While Freda will clearly resonate with anyone from Haiti or of Haitian descent, it will also doubtless speak to émigrés from many other nations. Though the movie revolves around the relationship between our eponymous protagonist Freda (Néhémie Bastien), her sister Esther (Djanaina Francois) and their mother Jeanette (Fabiola Remy), it is a fervent tale about the love (and dismay) we feel towards our native country and the depths to which we’ll go to either leave in the hope of a brighter future or stay to make the best of a bleak situation.

Généus tells this story through a Black feminist lens, critically focusing on the limited options that women face in Haiti’s male-dominant society. As such, the female characters’ confidence, strength and unwavering resilience is pitted against the and romantic arrogance of their male counterparts – and, by extension, the immeasurable hardships inflicted by their very own country. Freda, our protagonist, is an aspirational, independent woman: an intelligent student, fiercely opinionated and politically engaged, with an obstinate determination that her country can and should do better. Freda, like many of the educated youths in Haiti, feels a moral obligation to stay in a country that ostensibly does not love her back. Her indelible national pride is, of course, nuanced but essentially wavers on stubbornness and a (perhaps misplaced) optimism. Even when her artist-boyfriend Yeshua (Jean Jean), unable to see a future for them in Haiti, invites her to come and live with him in the Dominican Republic – where he moved after being shot by a stray bullet in Port-au-Prince – she dolefully declines, without giving much of a reason other than that she cannot leave her home and family behind.

Freda, 2021, still
Freda, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Sanosi Productions

Ester, on the other hand, serves as the perfect foil to Freda’s political idealism. Light skin (obsessively using whitening cream to appear ‘more attractive’), outgoing, superficial and staunchly pragmatic, Ester has several suitors that she believes may help her escape destitution. Her resolve is unshakable, so much so that when her ex-lover, the poet D-Fi (Rolapthon Mercure), confesses his love for her and begs her not to marry a rich senator, Ester remains silent, staring straight through him with a cold, piercing gaze, as if to say: ‘How lucky you are to have the luxury of falling in love.’ And then there is Freda’s mother – brilliantly played by Remy – who only wishes Freda could be more like her sister and more realistic about Haiti’s dismal future. Freda has a fraught relationship with her mother, due in large part to the fact that, as a child, she was forced to keep quiet about being raped by her stepfather lest she bring shame on her family. Still haunted by this memory, Freda’s resentment towards her mother is palpable – although she later confesses, in a voice-over monologue, that it is to Jeannette she owes her headstrong mentality.

Freda, 2021, still
Freda, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Sanosi Productions

Some of the film’s best moments are the rich and important student debates in Freda’s anthropology class about Haiti’s political corruption, its issues of class and colourism, and how the country seems to be forever stuck in the shadow of French colonialism. In one instance, a student tells her compatriots that they are still agents of the colonists, ‘and that’s why we are destroying our colour’. These scenes feel unscripted, as real as the protest footage itself. They point to how complicated and severe the political and social landscape is in Haiti, while also giving an outline of what shapes the beliefs and concerns of the three women protagonists who, despite their differences, are bound by love, respect and the knowledge that they’re in this fight together.

Main Image: Freda, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Sanosi Productions

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.