Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters
(Haiti/UK, 78 min.)
Dir. Leah Gordon, Eddie Hutton Mills
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)
The Hot Docs selection Echo of Everything gives audiences a thorough overview of musical ecstasy. However, audiences who want to truly experience the transformative power of music simply must see Echo’s fellow Artscapes selection Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters. The film is the standout work in a strong year for Hot Docs’ series devoted to artists and creative experience. Moreover, it’s arguably the most artistic work in the series, and one of the most aesthetically satisfying films at Hot Docs this year.
Kanaval transports audiences to Jacmel, Haiti where directors Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills capture the annual Mardi Grad celebrations. Kanaval, as Carnival is called in Haitian Kreyol, is far different from the rambunctious celebrations of North America. The film observes the roots of the tradition. It explores how the celebrations evoke the soul of a nation through dance and music.
Kanaval situates the unique nature of the celebrations amid the history of Haiti. Six chapters unfold the country’s history with slavery, including a 1791 slaves’ revolt, and serving as a port to the American trade. Haiti’s economic struggles fuel another chapter that considers the indemnity debt to France and a history of indebtedness. But the history also acknowledges Haiti for being the first Black republic established in the western hemisphere. This latter point underscores the film’s emphasis on resilience and distinct national pride.
A Cinematic, Sonic Essay
The film draws upon traditions of oral storytelling with interviews appearing as voiceover. The filmmakers ensure that Haitians are the dominant voice here—nay, the only voice—and Kanaval benefits from Gordon’s 25 years documenting the rituals of Kanaval in photography and print. The result is a cinematic photo essay with an eye for the nuances and complexities of the annual celebration.
Cinematographer Joel Honeywell conjures the longevity of the tradition through a mixed tapestry of images. Vibrant colour cinematography contrasts with the starkly striking black and white shots that capture crowds dancing in the street. Besides suggesting the historical nature of the essay, the vivid black and white ensures that the colour images are doubly so. Reds, greens, and yellows pop in a dazzling palette.
Gordon and Mills, working with a reported crew of 50% Haitians, capture an impressive variety of material to ensure wide-ranging representation. There are parades and dancing, voodoo rituals, and theatrical performances replete with papier mâché masks. Kanaval defies the colonial conventions of cinema, flipping the historical ethnographic gaze on its head to create something bold and new. The collage delivers a joyous energy that leaps from the screen and into the viewer. Fuelled by the propulsive beats of the music, this is an invigorating and immersive work. It evokes the sensation of being in crowd of thousands united by energy and rhythms.
This rich and wondrous work deserves similar celebration. It unpacks a lot of history in a brisk running time of 78-minutes and doesn’t waste a beat. The film smartly situates an ongoing tradition amid the histories and legacy that inform it. It conjures the ghosts of the past and invites them to dance forward into the future.
Kanaval screens at Hot Docs 2023.
Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.