A divorce helped Miryam Charles become a filmmaker.
The Haitian-Canadian director behind This House (aka Cette Maison), an early contender for the best Canadian film of the year, was dealing with the kind of imposter syndrome that is common to children of immigrant parents.
When Charles came out of film school at Cégeps du Québec and Concordia, she went to work as a director of photography, primarily on short films and features directed by her then husband. She was hoping to build up the confidence to direct but she says she was living in his shadow. Her professional network and success were tied to him, which made it even harder to believe she could make it on her own.
Then came the divorce and months spent in her apartment as a reset. She quit her job to think about what to do with her life. “After a few months of being depressed at home and my mom bringing me food and stuff, I made my first short film,” says Charles.
The 2015 short Fly, Fly Sadness is about a Finnish journalist visiting Haiti and discovering that everyone speaks with the same voice. Charles was the one narrating those voices. For her, the film was about finding her voice after her marriage.
Charles relays all these intimate details over a Zoom call from her Montreal apartment with a warm and joyous sense of humour, catching me off guard with how she keeps her spirits up while being open and introspective about the most gutting experiences in her life. That comes in handy when discussing her feature debut.
This House, which is headed to Hot Docs following a world premiere at the Berlinale, is about processing the pain left behind after Charles’s cousin died at a young age. The violent circumstances surrounding her death are any family’s worst nightmare.
Her cousin was living in Connecticut; Charles was in Laval, a suburb outside Montreal. The families were tight-knit, spending summers in each other’s homes. This House processes how relationships to those spaces are tenuous, as if the life was sucked out of them following the tragedy. Instead, they’re filled with absence and ghosts.
The film deals in layers of loss. Her cousin’s passing creates a disconnect for her family from their lives and their homes, not just in Connecticut and Quebec but also Haiti. The film also relates that to the immigrant experience, as if they too are wandering souls with, as Charles says, “no real anchor to tie them to the land.”
There’s a fascinating section in This House that takes place during the 1995 Quebec referendum, when anti-immigrant sentiment bristled beneath the separatists’ cause and further strained the family’s sense of belonging. Charles says her family had their bags packed, ready to move to Connecticut if the separatists won. She often wonders how life would have been different had that happened and whether her cousin would have lived in those what-if scenarios.
In her pitch for financing, Charles says she had a whole paragraph suggesting that making the film would help her process the grief and find some resolution.
“It didn’t really work out that way,” she says. “But it’s okay. Some things don’t need to have a resolution. They can just be open. I don’t think that myself or members of my family will ever get over the loss of my cousin.”
But as cliché as it is to say, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. After going through the process of making the film, which is about giving her cousin a voice, her family has been able to talk about her memory, having conversations they never had since her death.
“When somebody dies a violent death, it takes over everything,” says Charles. “It’s sad. You cannot hold on to the beautiful things. All the positive things and beautiful things about her just got swept away.
“Now we actually talk about her in a positive light: how she was so funny, very curious and could never stop talking.”