Ouvertures Review: History and Legacy Interact with Present-Day Haiti

RIDM doc becomes expressive once it finds its footing

6 mins read

(France/Haiti/UK, 132 min.)
Dir. Louis Henderson & Olivier Marboeuf

In the opening chapters of Ouvertures, directed by Louis Henderson and Olivier Marboeuf, we are far from Haiti. The overwhelming whiteness of a wintry landscape is interrupted by a lonely Black figure, engulfed by a cold and unwelcoming world. On the soundtrack, brooks babble, and a whispering voice sets the scene of the Haitian revolution. The set-up remains vague and dense. It’s also long, drawn over nearly an entire quarter of the film’s running time. It’s an expression of Haiti existing as a Black nation in a white world and the narrative movement of an outsider to insider, bringing the storytelling from Europe to the Caribbean.

While symbolically heavy, this opening sequence has little to do aesthetically with the rest of the doc, and once in Haiti, the film takes off. The ambiguous set-up, cloaked in mystery, becomes clearer. Ouvertures will focus on a theatre collective’s attempt to translate Édouard Glissant’s play, Monsieur Toussaint, from French to Creole. The words that echoed mysteriously through that first section will be discussed and rewritten.

Ouvertures reflects on legacy. Centred on the Haitian revolutionary hero, Toussaint Louverture, whose presence weighs heavily on the national collective, much of Ouvertures is structured around a series of rehearsals and discussions. The film is peopled with subjects who discuss word choices and approaches. They tackle questions familiar to any translator, such as the particular challenges of evoking poetry and prose in another language with its unique rhythms and patterns. The solutions are varied, though many rely on music, transforming the text into song.

More than just the literal translation process, the film also reflects on critical discussions about the play and the revolution it depicts. Centuries later, the revolution, where formerly enslaved people overthrew the French government to establish their own country, still looms heavily in Haiti. Yet, it seems to be an event beyond reproach— it feels radical to watch performers discuss the event and the play’s impact.

Two women by the water discuss women’s presence in the play, particularly, how the women’s struggle is symbolically reduced to a single character who stands for all of them. “Did women not also contribute to the liberation of Haiti?” It’s a rhetorical question; they are well-aware of the myriad contributions made by Haitian women. It’s an interlocution that expands the reach of the play, informed by research and personal experience. Rather than centring the experience entirely around Toussaint, the film quickly becomes a tapestry of voices and experiences. Each member of the troupe is given time and space to express their relationship to Haiti and the text they are exploring.

These types of discussions grapple with the aftermath of revolutionary thought. Haiti did not thrive after the revolution. While figures like Toussaint Louverture modelled Haiti’s constitution and revolution on France, the rest of the world never treated them as equals. The reward for liberating themselves from literal slavery was to be punished by their former colonizers. They were forced to learn that others must suffer for imperialism to survive and thrive. Freedom was never intended to be distributed evenly, a harsh reality that Haiti must still grapple over.

More than just an engagement with words and meaning, the play expands to reflect on the landscapes of Haiti itself. The performances are not anchored to a stage; instead, they are performed in the streets of Port-au-Prince. The filmmaking itself enriches these experiences in wordless sequences of the Toussaint actor walking through busy street markets. The camera follows him laterally from left to right, navigating the space, integrated but also broken off from the world. He doesn’t engage with any of the people; he merely passes through. The sequence ends with a cut to a statue of Toussaint, overlooking a public square. History, rather than presented as linear, informs and interacts with the present reality.

Part of a larger project by the Haitian artistic collective The Living and the Dead Ensemble, Ouvertures challenges perceived wisdom and perceptions. Rather than blindly accept the presented facts, they blur the lines between time and space. They inquire into national identities and engage with the art centred on accepted myths. While the film’s opening sequence might be unnecessarily long and dense, once the film finds its footing, it’s an expressive engagement with the Haitian revolution’s lasting impact.

Ouvertures screens at RIDM through Nov. 18.

Visit the POV RIDM Hub more coverage from this year’s festival.

Justine Smith is a contributor to publications including Hyperallergic, Roger Ebert and Cult MTL. She is the current president of the Quebec Critic’s Association (AQCC) and also programs Fantasia’s Underground Program.

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