Director Miryam Charles examines grief through a dreamy lens in Cette Maison

An interview with the Montreal filmmaker about Haïti, shooting during a pandemic and her experimental thinking.

If Miryam Charles had been left to her own devices, she would never have made a feature film. Her longest-ever film before Cette Maison was only about seven minutes long. “A lot of people make short films imagining that one day they’ll make a feature, whereas I love making short films and only imagined ever making short films,” she says. “It was my producer who convinced me to make a feature.” She turned to the story of her cousin, who died in 2008. “I thought of something that scared me and that would require a lot of courage to make,” she says.

Charles describes a family situation where they never really grappled with the death of her cousin, a teenager at the time. Through Cette Maison, she doesn’t take a straightforward path in dealing with grief. First of all, her cousin is now played by an adult. The film similarly weaves through different timelines, seemingly through dreams, to explore the many facets of mourning. Cette Maison was filmed in 16mm and mainly shot on sets, and the film has an elliptical way of addressing the topic. In a way, it remains evasive.

“When the film was screened,” says Charles, “some people thought it was strange. Then when I could screen it at FNC and my family and friends started to see it, it was clear that it works in much the same way as I do. But maybe I think experimentally,” she says, laughing.

Cette Maison Miryam Charles
Miryam Charles: “My cousin, when she was alive, never had a chance to go to Haïti, so symbolically, I wanted to bring her there.”

Shot during the pandemic, much of the film’s constraints emerged from altered shooting conditions. The film was originally going to be shot on location in her sister’s and aunt’s home, even a morgue, but they had to readjust. They could have waited until things opened up but instead opted for a studio shoot.

“Working in a studio became a way to work with the idea of memory,” says Charles. “It’s a film about fractured memories, so in terms of decor, we recreated parts of homes. Not perfectly. We could have made it more realistic, but part of memory is trying to recover or find something that no longer exists. We accentuated that.”

One of the film’s scenes tackles the 1995 referendum. “It was supposed to be my whole family, but because of the pandemic, we could only have about six or seven people in the house.” That scene surprised him when she first showed the script to her producer. “For him, it was a completely different point of view than what he expected. [In Quebec pop culture] it’s rare to see a perspective on the referendum that’s not disappointment.” On the other hand, “all my friends from immigrant families related to what I showed.”

The scene is filled with food and celebration — it’s triumphant and warm. “For my parents who had to leave a country under a dictatorship, all they wanted was stability, so for them, the idea of separation meant instability,” she says.

Miryam Charles Cette Maison
Miryam Charles and the crew on the set of Cette Maison

While dealing with the death of her cousin, the film also deals with the Haïtian diaspora. Part of Cette Maison was meant to be shot in Haïti, but unfortunately, the pandemic and the country’s ongoing instability made that impossible. “My cousin, when she was alive, never had a chance to go to Haïti, so symbolically, I wanted to bring her there,” says Charles. Instead, they shot in Saint-Lucia and Dominica. “In studio, though, we printed a large image of Haïti, which we placed behind the actresses. It was a way of recognizing that we were never able to shoot there,” she says.

Much of the film similarly features scenes of characters looking at maps, unsure where they are or where they’re going. Charles only first visited Haïti in her 20s. “But it was like I had memories of it from my parents,” she explains. “My parents were from two parts of the island, and they’d describe things differently. As a child, I would try to create what it looked like in my mind.” Then, she says, there would be the version of Haïti she’d see in the media, “and it’s always negative.”

The film deals in both the personal and the private; for Charles, that wasn’t always easy. “I didn’t fully realize how much it would cost me emotionally,” she says. In a way, the momentum of doing the film put off the feeling.” Then again, she says, she feels she didn’t go into things too graphically. “I didn’t want to do a true crime story,” she explains. “I’ve never been someone who understands things directly. I work in repetition. It’s like I’m trying to make sense of things that will never make sense,” she says.

Yet, she struggles to watch the film now. “Watching it now, I almost feel like I’m spending time with my cousin. So when it finishes, I have to remember that I’m not — every time.” But Cette Maison has been a largely positive experience. “I’m lucky. Even though it was very difficult, I had the support of my family, my team and even the actors. I chose everyone personally, not just because of their talent, but who they were on a human level,” says Charles. “If I was going to cry, I wanted to make sure I was surrounded by friends.” ■

Cette Maison (directed by Miryam Charles)

Cette Maison is currently screening in Montreal theatres.

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