“Watching the news reports, it is often hard to tell whether there are real living and breathing women in conflict-stricken places like Haiti. The evening news broadcasts only allow us a brief glimpse of presidential coups, rejected boat people and sabotaged elections. The women’s stories never manage to make the front page. However, they do exist.”
These words from Edwidge Danticat’s landmark essay, “We Are Ugly, But We Are Here,” were published three decades ago. Today, Danticat’s words resonate powerfully as Haiti faces a crisis of failed leadership and imminent military intervention.
Because Haiti is in the news again, the dynamic that Danticat identified in the 1990s is rearing its ugly head. Because Haiti is in the news again, we are bombarded with stories about unrelenting political turmoil, destabilizing unrest and crippling poverty.
Danticat’s prescient essay came to mind while I was watching Gessica Généus’s enthralling film, Freda.
In the final scene, two women with a thorny relationship sit on a doorstep, clutching one another tightly as tears stream down the older woman’s face. It is an excruciating, heartbreaking conclusion that leaves the viewer with weighted heaviness.
When I asked Généus about this final scene during a conversation we had at Northeastern University in Boston last month, she said her main goal was to convey truth. She was not invested or interested in offering a tidy happy ending for her viewers. Throughout our interview, we were both moved to tears as we sorted through what it meant to view such a beautiful and painful film in such a challenging moment of Haitian history.
Set in contemporary Port-au-Prince, Freda tells the story of real, living and breathing women who not only have a will to survive, but also have dreams to thrive. The film centers the experience of its eponymous protagonist—a college-aged philosophy student—who is in an intimate relationship Yeshua, an artist. Yeshua is unmoored of the unequal power dynamics and political unrest that shapes daily life—so much so that he is pressed to leave and longs for Freda to accompany him.
Gessica Généus accomplishes an enormous feat by simultaneously conveying the pain and the beauty of this current moment.
Played stunningly by new actor Néhémie Bastien, Freda is torn between her desire to remain at home and her love for Yeshua. She is also surrounded by an effervescent group of friends who debate the fate of their country in the context of its fraught history. The other women in Freda’s life include her indomitable mother—the owner of a small shop that neighbors frequent—and her ambitious sister Esther who pursues a life beyond the confines of what she knows.
Because Freda was filmed in 2018 as protests were erupting in Haiti in response to the fuel crisis, it contains live footage of local organizing and rebellions against government corruption. It displays people deeply invested in the fight for Haiti’s future who possess an urgent will to challenge state power, like the Kot Kob Caribe activists.
While this plot line drives the action of the film, there are other threads explored, including gender-based violence in the forms of rape and domestic violence; class inequity; color consciousness; education; religion and migration. The film affirms that not only do Haitian women exist, but that their existence is replete with complexity and beauty. The film is haunting and glorious, gorgeous and heartbreaking. It is rendered to us through the unflinching eye of a Haitian director committed to truth-telling and dedicated to her people.
I believe that Freda is the film we need now.
At this moment in Haitian history, while we sit at an urgent political crossroads, Freda simultaneously acknowledges our present challenge and quietly gestures toward a more hopeful future, one in which young women like Freda are not forced to choose between a life in Haiti and a life abroad. It is a future in which young people can still love, live, create and celebrate—despite the limits placed on daily life.
As the literary historian Marlene Daut has noted, Haitians have always been invested in claiming and championing human rights as our birthright and political heritage. Even as forces from French colonialists to U.S. neo-imperialists have sought to deny our humanity, Haitian intellectuals and artists have asserted that we are alive—and that our aliveness is evident in literature, visual art and scholarship.
With the film Freda, Gessica Généus extends this tradition. She accomplishes an enormous feat by simultaneously conveying the pain and the beauty of this current moment.
Part of the genius of Généus’s film is that she includes Haitian activists and artists who have been advocating for justice. These include Pascale Solages, one of the co-founders of the feminist group Nègès Mawon, and journalist and actor Gaëlle Bien-Aimé, who plays Freda’s bold best friend, Geraldine.
So much of what Généus has accomplished with Freda is groundbreaking: The film is entirely in Kreyòl, all of it was filmed in Port-au-Prince during a political uprising and the crew is almost entirely Haitian.
As an actor-director, Généus held her cast to a lofty standard, evident in the depth of their acting and the aching tone of the film brilliantly embodied by each character. Take, for example, the scene in which sisters Freda and Esther sit on their modest rooftop overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince: They share a cigarette and have casual conversation, but their looking and what is not said between them tells us so much more than the dialogue possibly could. These are sisters who love, understand and long together.
A feminist film in every way, Freda’s commitment to the female characters especially asks us to carefully consider what we look for when we see Haitian women.
To be clear, Freda is not hopeful. In fact, when I spoke to a friend after the screening, she was deeply troubled by the film’s message. Dismayed by the lack of hope Freda offered us, she asked, “So, there is just no hope for Haiti?”
As I tried to explain to her the discomfort and nuance that the film resides in, I realized Généus’s commitment to truth was audaciously uninterested in proving something about Haiti. The hope that she offered us was not in her content but in the form of the film. It is lived in the dance scenes, the long shots, the camera angles, the beautiful landscape, the lively music, the careful looks and relationships of care. And, by daring to not be hopeful, Généus reaches higher ground that asks us to look beyond the binary of hope and despair. Freda does more than confirm that, as Danticat had to declare decades ago, “Haitian women do exist”—it invites to imagine the many possibilities for their futures.
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