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What we propose.
Invented stories.
Not so far from reality.
An announcement of things to come.
We will install the possibility of a fluid journey in time and space.

With these words the young oral historian of CETTE MAISON (This House), Miryam Charles’ tragic yet hopeful debut feature, introduces a radical reimagining of Black girlhood. The film’s unnamed narrator is a fourteen-year-old girl of Haitian descent whose 2008 death in Connecticut under mysterious circumstances positions her as both an enduring absence and an illuminating presence for those bound to her memory by grief. Inspired by conflicting details in the autopsy and police reports about the cause of death, the filmmaker elaborates on these discrepancies to render legible the ways we might remake the stories that are lost in the gaps of the archive, which exists and operates in service of a white supremacist society and gives much less consideration to Black people, let alone Black girls.

But CETTE MAISON is no sensationalized true crime story. Rather, the film shows us the role that imagination might play in unearthing the knowledge and experiences that are marginalized or lost within such formal repositories. This creative mode of narration, which resembles what scholar Saidiya Hartman has termed “critical fabulation”, challenges the authority of archives, pushing for fulsome counter-history that permits us to see these lives on their own, rather than society’s terms.

Her spatiotemporal transcendence is an enigma.

At the heart of the film is a tension between memory as a retrospective orientation and memory as a pathway to reclaiming what was lost. Wedding form and content, CETTE MAISON’s striking rhythms and explicitly artificial stagings offer a visual echo of its conceptualization of memory, advancing beyond orthodox depictions of grief, longing, and hope. It opens with a visual absence and sonic lament that situate the film at the juncture of its protagonist’s past and imagined present. Her spatiotemporal transcendence is an enigma.

The film doesn’t present straightforward answers through this reimagined girlhood, nor does it resolve the gaps in the protagonist’s self-understanding. We see her attempts to make sense of the gaps between the autopsy and police reports as she remembers her own her death, imagines other ways of being in the world, and reflects on the constructed nature of storytelling.

This reflexive construction is explored spatially, by way of sequences shot in a darkened soundstage with photographic backdrops and theatrical sets; by way of language, with recollections addressed directly to the camera; and by way of conflicting concepts of narrative, as characters revisit events that interrogate the limits of what official records can tell us. The outcome is a boldly crafted counter-narrative, one that the central figure herself describes as impossible, yet which in fact opens up new possibilities for grief and remembrance.

Desirée de Jesús is a video essayist and moving image curator. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at York University.

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