Lovingly arranged, like a home in perpetual preparation for visitors, Cette maison (This House) is a feature-length moving-image shrine to the living memory of Terra Alexis Wallace, cousin of Montreal-born Haitian Canadian director Miryam Charles. Terra, who was murdered at home in 2008 at the age of fourteen, is reimagined as Tessa (Schelby Jean-Baptiste), who returns from the afterlife to her heartbroken mother, Valeska (Florence Blain Mbaye), in their Connecticut family home. In this ornate experimental documentary, Charles presents meticulously gathered Haitian soundscapes, an assortment of Caribbean flora, precious keepsakes, and staged recollections. With these elements, she conjures a reunion across realms, showing a family that is still standing despite being profoundly changed by what they have suffered.
An experienced cinematographer, Charles directed several short films on the way to her feature debut, each one demonstrating her commitment to challenging the conventions of cinematic form. True to her meditative aesthetic, Cette maison marks the place where cinema and ceremony meet, bridging reminiscences with deeply researched fabulations and a mourner’s desire to hold on.
The film comes to the Criterion Channel this May after an impressive festival run, which included a world premiere at the 2022 Berlinale Forum and top prizes at IndieLisboa and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. To mark the occasion, Charles and I spoke about what it was like to revisit such delicate family history, what inspires the way she tells stories, and the influences that have led to her experimentation with documentary form.
It must have been, I imagine, very difficult to make this film, even if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t impacted the shoot itself.
That’s true. I think I did not really think it through. It hit me in different ways at different stages of doing the film. But at first, I just wanted to be courageous and honor my cousin and my family. I thought that I would be well cared for, which did happen, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be.
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