Personal and political life in Haiti are brought sharply into focus in “Freda,” a powerful and resolutely unsentimental drama about a determined young university student who must decide whether to stay in her deeply troubled country or seek a future elsewhere. Weaving documentary footage of civil unrest into an intelligent and compassionate screenplay that examines what it means to be a Haitian woman in a society stacked heavily in favor of men, “Freda” marks an outstanding feature debut for actress-singer-filmmaker Gessica Geneus. This vital and vibrant drama is Haiti’s submission in the Oscar international feature category.
“Freda” is only the second Haitian feature entered for Oscar consideration, following “Ayiti Mon Amour” by Guetty Felinin in 2017. It’s also just the second Haitian production ever selected for Cannes, after Raoul Peck’s “The Man on the Shore” in 1993. “Freda” received a major profile boost in early December with the announcement that Francis Ford Coppola, a longstanding supporter of Haiti’s creative community, would be boarding the film as executive producer. Coppola’s involvement will doubtless assist the awards campaign and boost the film’s international distribution prospects.
“Freda” is set in 2018 and features footage of violent protests against President Jovenal Moise, under whose leadership vast sums of public money related to the PetroCaribe oil deal with Venezuela went missing. Moise’s assassination on July 7, 2021, is the latest in a long line of traumatic events in the Caribbean republic since it declared independence from France in 1804 and became the first sovereign nation to unconditionally abolish slavery. Viewers unfamiliar with Haitian history can easily catch up with the basics during discussions in Freda’s anthropology class, where national identity, civil disobedience, political corruption and perceived class distinctions between Creole and French speakers are just some of the hotly debated topics.
Geneus adroitly balances the fiery talk on Freda’s campus with an intimate and affecting study of her family life. Freda and her deeply religious mother Jeanette (Fabiola Remy), promiscuous sister Esther (Djanaina Frabcois) and directionless brother Moses (Cantave Kerven) are hardly well-off but are certainly not the poverty-stricken characters we so often see in films set in poor and developing countries. The fatherless family manage to make a modest living selling food and drinks at their small shop in a busy Port-au-Prince neighborhood.
Among those who have fled Haiti is Freda’s boyfriend, Yeshua (Jean Jean), an artist who relocated to Santo Domingo after being shot in his sleep by a stray bullet from the street. There’s a lovely tenderness between the couple when he returns for an exhibition of his work in Port-au-Prince. Freda’s emotional agony is palpable when Yeshua urges her to give up on Haiti and start a new and safer life with him in the Dominican Republic.
The heart-wrenching dilemma facing Freda sits in stark contrast with Esther’s pragmatism. Succumbing to everything Freda regards as demeaning to women and limiting their independence, Esther lightens her skin with chemical cream, sleeps with a sleazy foreign church minister and drops nice-guy artist boyfriend D-Fi (Rolapthon Mercure) to aggressively pursue a rich senator. Standing by in silent approval is Jeanette, whose shocking secret relating to violence, oppression and sexual abuse makes a devastating impact late in proceedings.
Geneus’ richly detailed screenplay has plenty to say about social and political ills but never wallows in misery and makes Haiti’s dynamic cultural and creative environment integral to Freda’s story. Footage of a stunning street dance during Day of the Dead celebrations, D-Fi’s soulful poetry, Yeshua’s beautiful works of art and Freda’s joyful singing and dancing to Haitian rhythms in a packed nightclub show the vibrant soul of Haiti, underscoring why Freda cannot easily turn her back on the homeland she cares about so passionately. When watching Freda immerse herself in Haitian culture and speak her mind about national history and identity, it is easy to form the impression that Haiti could turn its fortunes around if people of Freda’s caliber are given the opportunity to help shape its future.
Although editing of some documentary footage into the drama is a little abrasive at times, “Freda” will capture the attention and win the admiration of many viewers with its incisive commentary, warm heart and the beautifully modulated performance of newcomer Bastien as the courageous and proudly defiant heroine. Fellow debutant Remy is excellent as the mother seeking solace in religion, and Francois nails it as the ambitious sister who mistakenly believes she’s in control of her destiny. Supporting performances by a largely inexperienced cast are uniformly good.
Very well photographed by experienced documentary DP Karine Aulnette, “Freda” concludes with a shot that will linger long in viewers’ memories. Running for almost three minutes, this incredibly powerful image serves as both a deeply moving lament for the suffering of women in this troubled nation, and a statement of hope for the future.