In Conversation: Miryam Charles, Reimagining Grief, and Spaces Inbetween in Cette Maison

Miryam Charles’ debut feature film Cette Maison had its premiere at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal (FNC) on October 9th. 

Over the past year, I have been working with the themes of intergenerational trauma, mixed identities, and personal histories within Caribbean communities, more specifically, the larger Black diaspora, as a part of the Visual Collections Repository’s (VCR) film curating residency at Concordia University. I was drawn to this work, myself being half Jamaican and half settler-Canadian, because of the lack of Black representation—from telling our own stories to bodies on screen—absently present within the film canon. My desire to see more layered representations of Blackness on screen and locally within the Canadian film industry led me to the multifaceted Black community of Montreal.  

Born in Montreal to a Haitian family that immigrated to Canada in the 70s, filmmaker Miryam Charles began this film with the desire to reconnect to her family’s history. Though she has made other short films, the themes she continues to come back to in her works are diasporic longings of homelands, understanding identity as a Canadian-Quebecoise woman with immigrant parents, and belonging within these fragmented spaces. “As I grew older, I realized it’s not as important to not belong to one single place, and it’s ok to feel out of place…everywhere.” We shared a moment chuckling to ourselves, knowing full well the depth of this feeling. “And Cette Maison is a reflection on this—I might feel out of place in a particular country, but my place is with my family. Cette Maison is a love letter to my family and to my cousin.” 

Beginning with a house in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 2008, the body of a fourteen-year-old girl was found hanging in her room. With all signs pointing to suicide, her death is later discovered to be the result of a traumatic and violent murder that haunts the memory of the family. In recounting her family’s history in her debut feature film, Charles reflects on the death of her cousin Tess by reimagining the space of grief where mother and daughter are reunited through a love that extends beyond death. Cette Maison re-examines the events of the past, drifting between ghostly visitations, conversations, dreams, and memories of possible pasts and futures that bind the living and the departed together.

Five years ago, Miryam started working on this project, not knowing if she would see any truth in producing the film with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the successful financing of the film and the support of her crew, the film has been making waves in the festival circuit. As an experimental documentary that blends fictional elements with personal histories in documentary format, Charles was moved to re-confront the grieving process through her storytelling years later. 

When asked about the reparative and healing nature of the film, Charles said not everyone in her family had seen the film yet, but they will be seeing it opening night at FNC on October 9th. “When my cousin died, we kind of stopped talking about her like she never existed. It was very strange, but in a way, it was understandable because she died such a violent death everyone was focusing on that and didn’t want to think about it.”

Charles wanted to make sure her family was okay with making the film and how she was going to approach the subject. She reflects, “that it wasn’t about the way that she died but the way that she lived. And now, we talk about her not so much about the way she died but how she was as a person and that she was loved and loved us and talk about her like she existed.” Because the film is mostly shown through reenactment, it was important to Charles not to show the murder or a dead body because even if it’s covered, you know, symbolically, it’s dead. By having Tess stand over her own covered body as she recounts the shame, guilt, grief, and pain leading up to her death, she is able to share this moment of reckoning with her mother and relatives present with her in the morgue. We often see extreme violence and death surrounding Black bodies in the media more often than we should. It was important to Charles to keep the moment of death and the aftermath surrounding the body separate from the emotional pain of grieving. As it was already a traumatic experience for her cousin to die in such a way, it was equally as important not to show the body or the moment of death to protect Miryam herself and her family as well. She points out that for herself, she doesn’t even attempt to watch the videos that readily make Black death and suffering available for public consumption. “You don’t need to see it because we see it so often [in our daily media], and imagining those bodies is enough—it’s hard to recover from each time. I don’t need to see this or subject myself to this,” in either circumstance.

Adamant about not showing the body in the later stages of writing for her film, Charles continually received commentary and questions on why she didn’t name the murderer or show the body in the film. She speculates that because people have become so used to the true crime genre and format that they had failed to recognize that the film wasn’t supposed to be about understanding the murderer’s mindset—it’s about honouring her cousin in the way she wants to remember her. 

Reflecting on this raises another matter when thinking about how filmmakers usually get feedback for wanting to show certain images rather than withholding them. “People have a strange relationship to crime. It’s sad to say, but if it hasn’t happened to you, people easily, sometimes in Q&A’s, ask strange questions about the traumatic event and the aftermath without being sensitive to the actuality of the impact it has. This is still my life, you know?”

I asked about this aspect by relating it to the way the film is described online as a crime-solving mystery. Charles responded by saying that she purposefully made the synopsis appear to be more traditional in the description but wanted the viewer to be misguided by the divergent approach the film takes in its’ experimental form. I appreciated this aspect as I expressed to Charles that, in this way, the film makes space for communion with these interactions and conversations by portraying the grieving process as a space that may or may not exist between the characters through life and after death.

These infinite realities construct spaces of possibility where the movie develops through pasts, futures, dreams, and memories that generate a very intentional repetition of the dialogue between the three characters. For Myriam, this manifested by going over the day, the year, the moment, over and over again, trying to understand; How did it happen? Did I have a part in it? Could I have changed something to not make it happen? In her mind, she has gone over and over these conversations, the good and bad times trying to reconstruct moments in time though without actually being able to change anything. And realizing this (repetitious) impossibility drove her crazy, which is why Charles uses the same words but in different conversations, with each character echoing the words of the other. 

Within these spaces of possibility, like a time capsule of collected real and imagined moments, Cette Maison captures the glimmering remnants of a life lived, lost, and loved. Using 16 mm images as a vessel to convey a tangible reality between life and death, Charles’ film opens up a dwelling for healing in confronting grief and trauma. And within these spaces are histories of alienation derived from violence and displacement, where each generation is faced with idealized futures and romanticized pasts. A tribute to the Black feminist tradition, Miryam Charles poetically embodies the disconnections and attachments between Blackness, being, and belonging—part and parcel of the Black diaspora—rendered through her own experience.