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Still from film Cette Maison (This House) directed by Miryam Charles. Close up of a woman in a black funeral style hat looking downward in front of a dark background.

Issue 005 Winter 2023 Essays

Miryam Charles’s Pragmatics of Remembering

What do we do in Charles’s world—where images have one agenda, and sound another, language another?

By Anaïs Duplan

From Cette Maison (This House) (2022), dir. Miryam Charles. Courtesy Oyster Films.

I can’t help but focus on the captions when I watch Miryam Charles’s films.

My eyes are drawn to the written words flashing on and off the bottom of the screen, more so than the image or the sound; this phenomenon reminds me of a TikTok I saw. Two friends are watching a movie together. They get one scene into it when Friend A, without warning, grabs the remote to turn off the subtitles. Friend B, gripped by a familiar dread, is horrified to find they can no longer decipher the action on-screen.

In the comment section, people who are distracted by subtitles, like Friend A—people I’ll never understand—chime in: “I can never watch movies with subtitles.” Or, “It’s so distracting!” There’s a seemingly primordial difference between the pro- and anti-subtitle people. It’s humorous to imagine all those relationships in which one partner needs subtitles to understand what’s happening while the other needs the absence of subtitles to understand what’s happening.

With that TikTok in mind, I found myself delightfully transfixed by Charles’s subtitles. Charles makes sure, almost always, to supply a textual speaker who accompanies, rides along with the visual and sonic worlds of her films. Unlike subtitles, the role of this textual speaker isn’t just to support the action, to mimic the dialogue. Instead, an entirely parallel conversation is happening—one that revolves around the pragmatics of language. I don’t mean pragmatics as in logical, sensical action, but rather the field of study within linguistics about how contextual clues shade how we hear meaning. There are both verbal and nonverbal types of context clues. For verbal clues, think: intonation, cadence, and the speed at which one speaks. For nonverbal, think: how you sit in your chair as you speak, the look on your face. These clues, plus the actual words you’re saying, are how some people try to get to know us through our speech.

Still from film Cette Maison (This House) directed by Miryam Charles. A close up of a finger pointing at a yellowed folded paper that says "Cap-Haitien" with various illustrative elements around it.
From Cette Maison (This House) (2022). Courtesy Oyster Films.

If we think of watching a film as kind of like listening to a friend talk, then we can see how we’re engaged in pragmatics when we watch film. For example, the images, the lighting of those images, and the sounds we hear when we see those images are part of meaning-making in film. Pragmatics get even more interesting when we consider what we do when there are discrepancies between what we see and what we hear.

Take, for instance, a lover telling you they aren’t angry, though their facial expression is pained, and they’re turning their body away from you as they say it. What do we do then? Hear the words or hear their body? What do we do in Charles’s world—where the images have one agenda, the sound another, language and the interchange of various languages yet another, spoken language and written language another still? This isn’t to say there’s always disagreement, but the polyphonic layering of Charles’s work lends itself to generative confusion. It’s a place where pro- and anti-subtitle people might come together.

Charles’s subtitles have agency of their own. They are not reliably interested in supporting or challenging the action. One might, as I was, be carried away by the subtitles over and against the image, but in this case, I’d argue this isn’t a distraction. That’s the beauty of its construction: in order to arrive at meaning as we watch, we must always shuffle back and forth between the various channels of meaning.

In Cette Maison (2022), Charles’s feature film, we shuttle impressively between the United States, namely Connecticut, where the protagonist was born; Québec, a place where I also have Haitian relatives and spent nearly every Christmas for a while; and Haiti, which I’ve returned to only twice since I was born there. For more reasons than just our shared cultural background, I feel a kinship with the main characters of Cette Maison, a Haitian mother and the ghostly memory of her young daughter.

Still from film Cette Maison (This House) directed by Miryam Charles. Three figures in shadow around a gurney with a white sheet covering it, a body is under it.
From Cette Maison (This House) (2022). Courtesy Oyster Films.

The scenes that portray other family members feel a lot like scenes of my own family. At a later moment in Cette Maison, the mother teases her daughter for her usage of Kreyòl as the latter says something like, “Li se yon bèl ti gason.” (He is a beautiful boy.) The daughter giggles as she repeats the phrase at her mother’s request. Many Haitian mothers of Haitian American children can’t help but call out, with a mix of excitement and terror, their children’s more alienated relationship to Kreyòl, the mother tongue. That we, as Haitian American children, may have relationships as deep to other languages (and here, of course, language stands for culture) is a sign that we’ve assimilated into something else, something unnameable. It’s not the replacement of one language for another that’s significant, but some other, more intimate, and relational transformation happening below the surface. A transformation of which the semi-bilingual condition of the Haitian American child is only a symptom.

The geopolitical implications of the multilingual slippages—e.g., the sociocultural condition of immigrant children—throughout Charles’s work are not as interesting as a consideration of the very personal slippages marked by those linguistic slippages. Take, for instance, the almost violently subdued nature of the interpersonal relationship played out in Charles’s Drei Atlas (Three Atlas) (2018), in which a series of mismatched dialogic exchanges take place between a German police investigator and a Haitian domestic worker who is suspected of committing a crime against her employers. The crime is murder, but in the fashion of a vampire. There’s talk of drinking blood.

Later, we learn that while the German investigator has been reformed of her desire to drink blood, the Haitian woman has not. It’s not the Haitian woman’s vampirism that is a problem, but rather that she hasn’t been civilized out of the behavior. Cultural assimilation might one day rid her of her desire to drink blood. In acknowledging her own vampiric past, the investigator tries to create a moment of empathy between them. We might understand this as real empathy if not for the fact that the Haitian woman has never admitted to vampiric urges herself. She’s being accused of drinking blood and shamed for her failure to outgrow drinking blood at the same time. A familiar process of psychological projection: colonizer projects negative quality onto the colonized, then punishes them for it.

Still from film Drei Atlas (Three Atlas) directed by Miryam Charles. A building with a tree in the foreground, with orange film fading coloring the image
From Drei Atlas (Three Atlas) (2018). Courtesy the filmmaker.

Throughout the interrogation, the Haitian woman speaks in Kreyòl and the German woman in German. They aren’t exactly speaking to one another, but they aren’t not speaking to each other either.

“I would go to the bathroom, get on my knees, and started [sic] cleaning,” says the Haitian woman.

“I don’t understand a word that you’re saying,” says the German investigator, a cryptic admission given the two women have been engaged in dialogue for almost four minutes.

“I know,” responds the Haitian woman, without missing a beat, before carrying on with her description of her cleaning routine.

This dialogic mismatch creates a sense of forceful quietude in me, of shared intimacy with the two women, whom we never see. We only hear their voices. It makes me want to lean in closer, as though being closer to the screen would help me better understand their relationship. How did this happen? How did we get here?

The subtitles in this piece bring both women’s speech into the English language, where they are equalized in relation to each other while bearing only an affective relationship to the image and sound treatment. On screen, we see slow, shaky pans across the tops of buildings at dusk. The sounds of passing cars and barking dogs add depth to the imagined neighborhood, around which the Haitian immigrant woman is said to have been seen walking alone at odd hours of the night.

Still from film Chanson for le Nouveau Monde (Song for the New World) directed by Miryam Charles. A landscape of the water, with a figure on the far right in the mid ground.
From Chanson pour le nouveau monde (Song for the New World) (2022), dir. Miryam Charles. Courtesy the filmmaker.

Time passes modestly in Charles’s films, which can make for a troubling viewing experience. I’m both over- and understimulated. The emotional stakes in Chanson pour le Nouveau-Monde (2021) seem to be incredibly high, even as we move from relatively still shot to relatively still shot—a cemetery, a waterfall, a fisherman, children’s toys on the floor—while listening to the sweet singing of a young woman. But I cannot tell why, not exactly. I just sense something awful has happened, or is about to, as though the condition of the world we live in is one in which something awful has happened or is about to, always and forever. We are held in a condition of suspended, almost frozen, precarity.

Last semester, in the midst of teaching a class on the history of Black experimental documentary, I taught my students what it means to buy into the documentarian project (or I tried to, anyway). Many of the works we watched, for instance, Sondra Perry’s Black/Cloud (2010), are objectively boring. It’s not a failure of the work. It’s that these kinds of works aren’t at all interested in our entertainment. And so, if you come to these films desiring to be entertained, you’ll be bored at best and angry at worst, and either way, you’ll have missed the point. Black experimental documentary wants to be met by us. It wants us to buy in. We have to actively engage with the documentarian’s claim that the subject matter is worth recording, remembering. Describing her own archival intentions, Saidiya Hartman writes of “a history of an unrecoverable past.” We can think of Black experimental documentary as “a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.”
The Black experimental documentary responds to the gaps, to the lack, to what is missing.

And while some may think it a stretch to call Charles’s work experimental documentary given that her films are often built on fiction and narrativity, the bottom line is that documentary is about remembering, and so is Cette Maison. So is Chanson pour le Nouveau-Monde. This is why we must move so slowly and so carefully through the many layers of Charles’s work. So that we can take care to remember.