Yasmina Price in Conversation with Miryam Charles
Yasmina Price [YP] Cette maison is so closely tied to your family history, so could we begin with the importance of family to your filmmaking, or perhaps rather storytelling practice?
Miryam Charles [MC] I’m always starting with family because I always say that I don’t have much imagination, so it has to come from something that is close to me. Family itself, family anecdotes, conversations with my family, when I get to see my sisters, my mother, other close members of my family, all this has a large influence in my creative process.
[YP] That is beautifully reflected in the emotional weight of this film. In relation with your family, this feature moves between Haiti, Canada, and the U.S. and it seems to me those geographic circuitries are an important element woven throughout your work.
[MC] I would think so. Even as Cette maison is set in the United States, in Connecticut, where part of my family is, a lot of my family is still in Haiti and most of my family is in Canada, so this is all also grounded in my family history. This is also true in my short films, although there are a few in other countries, like Germany and Scotland. As I said earlier, my relationship with imagination is based on something I’m able to know, or else it’s very difficult for me to imagine a story. But I think it’s mainly rooted in questions about personal identity, from when I was younger. I guess it’s like that for everybody, but I wanted to know where I belonged. I was born from Haitian parents in Canada and, when I was younger, I really wanted to be Canadian. It was very, very important to me to be part of the society. And then I grew up, and understood more about larger social dynamics, racism, and I realized that a certain acceptance was unavailable to me. And then I started to travel to Haiti. I would spend a lot of summers there and realized I wasn’t really Haitian either. For my parents, it was very important for us to be integrated into Canadian society. They didn't teach us Kreyòl when we were little. I think they regretted this later, but they really tried and did their best. So I learned Kreyòl very late in my life, and I speak it with a French accent, which for me is very weird. When I see my family in Haiti, I feel a bit of shame about the fact that I speak with a French accent. Especially knowing about the history of colonial languages. But French is also part of my identity. And I remember clearly when I did the narration for Cette maison, at first I thought I should hire somebody to speak Kreyòl correctly, but then I decided to leave it as is, with my French accent, because it’s part of my personal history and larger histories of immigration and displacement and Haitian identity.
[YP] In a funny way, it’s almost like you’re speaking a creolization of Kreyòl, which is being metabolized and affected by contemporary forms of displacement. Which resonates with how the film, even while it’s working through a specific process of mourning and the loss of your cousin, is also touching on these forms of cultural loss and alienation for Haitians in the diaspora. The conversations between Tessa and Valeska engage this difficulty in terms of language, where Valeska is hesitating to speak Kreyòl in that kitchen scene and there’s another moment where Tessa seems to have more facility with it, and all this tied to a deep desire to belong somewhere—just like you were saying you have experienced.
[MC] Which is exactly how it can be within the same family, because while I speak Kreyòl with a French accent. Yeah, my little sister, who was 10 years younger than me, was taught it by my parents from a young age.
[YP] That also makes me wonder to what extent you’re thinking directly about colonialism when making these films because it’s very clearly marked, for example, even in the title of your short Vers les colonies (2016), and also very present in this feature.
[MC] I think it will always be directly linked to being a Haitian in Canada, which has a lot of reckoning to do with these histories. And when I started making films, six years ago, and I didn’t really want to be a filmmaker. It’s just kind of happened in a way.
[YP] Wait, you really didn’t?
[MC] Well, let’s go back. I studied film production at Concordia University, but I wanted to be director of photography. So, I did that for a while. But I’m an introvert, so it was difficult to find jobs because I didn’t have a website or any of that, but still I did work as a DP (director of photography) for six years and also I produced experimental film for my friends. And then I got divorced and during the first month of being divorced, I think I had something of a personal identity crisis, and I thought, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” That’s how I started to write and work on short films, and since I had produced films for other people, I didn’t have to reach out to a producer, I was able to do it all myself. My first short film is called Fly, Fly Sadness (Vole, vole tristesse, 2016) and I knew that it was better to not speak too aggressively about colonialism. Because it is such an important subject, it is such an important part of my identity, and also because we don’t really talk about it in Canada. Not in general, and especially not in Quebec. If you try to talk about it, people get very defensive very, very fast. The attitude about colonization and other parts of Canada’s history is often: We don’t see it. And it can be very frustrating.
[YP] That is reminiscent of the amnesiac policy the French state can have towards its colonial history, and really the same is true of many imperial projects. Different than simply forgetting and yet not a mode of being too explicit, a quality in your film I very much appreciated were the formal tactics of indirection or partial camouflaging. I’m especially curious, because you started out as a DP, how you think of the process of finding or creating a visual language for yourself?
[MC] Hmm. I never really thought about it, but I would say that as a DP, it’s not really about you. It’s about the film, the filmmaker, the team that you’re working with. And then I found that beginning my shift towards being the filmmaker, it’s completely the opposite—but also I never started with the visuals, always the sound. When I made my first short, and this is true with all of them, I would write the script, then record all the sounds—and I record a lot when I’m traveling, and then place them in a hard drive where I have a huge sonic bank. I label all the sounds and then I edit them, record the narration, and edit the film using only the sound as a template. I begin by listening to the film, in my home, when I go for a walk, and then trying to find a visual element to match it. And I either edit images from what I already have or I shoot new images if I have to. It was the same in Cette maison. This is the way that I’ve been working for six years, so the sound is such an important element, with the visual part coming later. Also, the relationship that I have with the visual is different than when I was a DP because it’s closer to who I am as a person. Since I’m really shy, I film everything at a distance, to observe.
[YP] There are so many stunning landscape shots in the film! But then on the other hand I found one of the most fascinating aspects were the theatrical sets. Were they what you had in mind from the beginning? Because it sounds like in terms of the landscape shots, you were drawing on your usual visual habits, but then these interiors are something different.
[MC] Yes, it was always part of the plan, it was in the script. But at first, the theatricality was supposed to be more in the way that the actors were directed. I was supposed to shoot the interiors in my sister’s house in Laval, but it didn’t happen because of the pandemic. So I decided very quickly to try to recreate my sister’s house in a studio set, and not to make it too realistic. We had the budget to make it seamless, but since I really love and enjoy theatre, I thought, “OK, with the great team that I had, we’re going to recreate the house in the studio.” Even if it would have been shot in my sister’s house, what we had planned was to show the camera lights and other equipment, so you would have known it was a set.
[YP] Even if part of the final execution was motivated by logistics, those scenes of such evident artifice are so essential to highlighting the speculative aspect of the film. And from my perspective, also serve as a form of ethical distancing. Related to this, I believe you had to shoot what were meant to be Haitian landscapes in Dominica, is that right?
[MC] It’s the same thing as what happened with the house, but for the Haitian part I had to deal with it in an emotional sense, which is related to how I never really wanted to be a filmmaker, and especially never wanted to make a feature film. I love short films: you can work on one for a few months or a year and then it’s done and you can do another one. And since I was producing my films, financially speaking, it was more manageable. The form of the short was perfect for me. I was sure I would never make a feature, until a very persistent friend who is producer kept telling me, for months, that I should make one and that I was ready. After a year and a half, I decided to try, and I thought to myself, “What is the thing or the subject that I’m the most afraid of?” And it was the death of my cousin. I pitched him the story, and the way that I wanted to approach the film—experimental in terms of storytelling—and really thought that we would never get funded. Except that after a few tries, we did. It was very important to me when I pitched the film that I would go back to Haiti and shoot, in part because my cousin was never able to go there. So for me, there was a symbolic importance. But then between the pandemic and everything that was happening in Haiti at the time, it was impossible. There were two places I had in mind, St. Lucia and Dominica, and it ended up being Dominica. So I tried to incorporate, in a very soft, subtle way, that we were not really there in Haiti, for example through the narration at the beginning of the film which speaks about an impossible quest. Even if in the dialogue of the characters, they look at the map, they never really know where they are, and it was a way for me to acknowledge that substitution.
[YP] And you also have those long shots of part of Dominica at a distance, which is another way of leaving an opening of uncertainty and not trying to trick the viewer into thinking it’s Haiti. I’ll also say that those shots across the water really reminded me of the end of Claire Denis’ L’intrus, when it finishes in Tahiti.
[MC] Well, I watched that film a lot during quarantine, so maybe it came out that way.
[YP] This brings me to another question I had, in relation to at least how I see your practice as part of a constellation of black women filmmakers negotiating the conditions of diasporic movements, and I wonder if that framing resonates with you?
[MC] I never really think of that when I when I’m creating and I guess also it’s because I wouldn’t like to. There are so many filmmakers that I admire, but at the same time, I don’t think I am at the level of placing myself in any sort of group. I like it better when it comes from somebody else telling you, it would feel a bit presumptuous on my part, but maybe later in my career I will be confident enough to say that.
[YP] Well, I certainly think you belong alongside many brilliant filmmakers! How about your relationship to Caribbean cinema?
[MC] I would love to be considered a Caribbean filmmaker, but at the same time, it’s hard to label it. Like I said, earlier, when I was younger, I wanted to be Canadian and, really specifically, Quebecoise. But then I picked up on how Haitians and immigrants were spoken about in the media or in the paper. And I would say at the end of the day, I’m all those things.
Miryam Charles is a writer, producer, filmmaker, and director of photography based in Montréal, Quebec. She has directed several short and feature films—including Fly, Fly Sadness (2016); To The Colonies (2016); Three Atlas (2017); The Red Album or A Poetic Intention (2019); and Cette maison (2022)—which have been presented at venues internationally, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Berlinale, Art of the Real at Lincoln Centre, Block Museum, La Cinémathèque québécois, ALT/KINO, CalArts, Third Horizon Film Festival, L’Aternitiva, and Hot Docs. Charles is the recipient of numerous grants, awards, and residencies, including IndieLisboa International Film Festival’s Silvestre Award for Best Feature Film (2022). Her feature-length fiction film La marabout is currently in production.
Yasmina Price is a writer, programmer, and PhD candidate in the departments of African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anticolonial cinema from the Global South and the work of visual artists across the African continent and diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Her recent writing has appeared in Art in America,Aperture, Criterion’s Current, Film Comment, and Film Quarterly.
Miryam Charles, Cette maison (2022), 16mm film stills. Courtesy the artist.
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