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Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills’ feature documentary Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters is an impassioned portrait of a country reeling from its colonialist past. The directors present, on the one hand, the complex story of the enslavement, exploitation and murder of Haiti’s Black and Indigenous populations by colonisers, and, on the other, of those peoples’ organised resistance – particularly the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – through carnival masquerades. Sparing with contextual information but rich in swaying, impressionistic sequences of carnival preparation and dances taking place in the Haitian city of Jacmel – accompanied by a voiceover featuring carnival performers, spiritual leaders and artists – the film succinctly recaps the country’s devastation at the hands of the Spanish, French and American colonisers, while stressing the function of popular culture as a repository of national memory.
Gordon’s ongoing black-and-white photographic series carrying the same title, Kanaval, which he began in 1995, presents portraits of carnival performers, often captured in striking, semi-fantastical get-ups and elaborate masks. A similarly dreamlike, sensorially charged approach permeates the film, which pairs the sounds of rousing carnival songs (most of which are recorded by the group Sons of Kemet) and cadent drums with stunning, pulsating images shot by the film’s DoP Joel Honeywell, all rhythmically edited by Xanna Ward Dixon. Those images alternate between inky black and white and crisp, limpid colour, as if to constantly remind viewers that we’re traversing different temporalities: from the historical, archival past (often associated with black and white) to its vestiges in the present, but also from reality to reverie and back. Kanaval: A People’s History exults in the expressivity of the performers’ gestures, but never loses sight of the essential connection between representation and event: in this case, the carnival with its codified modes of storytelling, and the Revolution waged to expel the colonisers.
The film is somewhat light, however, on narrative nuance or complexity. Gordon and Hutton Mills tread lightly in their use of direct historical sources, instead relying on pithy quotes from famous figures in Haiti’s revolutionary past – figures that include Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and the country’s first post-colonial ruler, Jean-Jacques Dessaline. Viewers hoping to better understand, for example, the process through which “75% of France’s wealth was gained on the backs of Haitians,” as the film’s principal speaker tells us, will need to reach for outside reading to fill in the picture – or to gain any contextual grounding for the film. This is perhaps because the film inscribes itself best within a rich tradition of empirical, oral accounting: as the title suggests, it’s a history told from the perspective of those immersed in its wounds, fantasies and myths. Kanaval’s interest in the symbolic as a locus of subjective social meaning brings to mind such predecessors as Jean Rouch’s I, a Negro (1958) – a film with which it shares an intricate weaving of first-person voiceover (sometimes inflected with irony and wit, other times with pathos) and hypnotic images.
What’s lost in expository detail is amply compensated for by the richness of the storytelling and the film’s symbolic gravitas. The Haitian artists, vodou priests and carnival performers that we either see directly in scenes or hear in the voiceover all frame the carnival as the epicentre of Haitian historical consciousness, essential to survival: “Sometimes I think, without the carnival, many people would go mad,” says one, reflecting on Haiti’s tumultuous history, which in the modern era includes such dictatorial figures as the presidents Papa Doc (François Duvalier) and his son, Baby Doc. “The zombie myth represents our fear of being enslaved again,” says another, in a striking illumination of the concept of zombies, often misrepresented in western culture as threatening or as proof of base spirituality.
Indeed, the film is richest in such brief juxtapositions of today’s carnival with its historical renderings in world cinema. While western movies are shown to collapse vodou’s symbolism into heinous racist tropes (for instance, vulnerable white women being threatened by zombies), in the Haitians’ own telling, kanaval emerges as an aesthetic and social demonstration that embodies and makes communal and festive the remembrance of the revolt of the country’s Indigenous and Black people. Rather than centring the acts of the colonisers, the film commemorates Haiti’s unique place in the global history of the slave trade as the very first nation that articulated and successfully carried out a mass political movement to end it – even if the country continues to suffer the consequences to this day.
► Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters is in UK cinemas from 11 November.
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