Runtime: 76 minutes
Directors: Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills
By Calum Cooper
For two centuries, the city of Jacmel in Haiti has hosted the singular festival known simply as Carnival. Festivals are often a great way of not only appreciating the cultural exuberance of a nation, but uncovering how such culture has prospered or evolved with time. Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills aim to do just that with their compelling, informative new documentary “Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters” (2022).
The title is quite a specific declaration, and the film does what it says on the tin. By following numerous troupes who are attending and participating in Carnival, Gordon, Hutton Mills and team detail many chapters of Haitian history. Each artistic creation and each expressive choice celebrated during the festivities reveals historical influence. Yet they also speak to the character of Haiti as a collective nation. It is that which makes this documentary so captivating.
Haiti can be characterised as a nation of perseverance. Like many in central America, Haiti’s history is mired with colonisation at the hands of invading European nations. In Haiti’s case, France has left the biggest scar on their past. Three quarters of its wealth was generated off of the forced labour from Haiti. Yet the most significant scar is the financial devastation that Haiti is still recovering from to this day. Haitians were among the very first to stand up to the evils of slavery, organising a successful revolt in the 1790s, as this film showcases. However, France still imposed its unwanted authority through the demands of financial reimbursement for the slave revolt. Add on the interference of America in later years, and it is easy to see why so much hardship has been endured by the people of Haiti.
Yet, underneath all that strife, Kanaval demonstrates that Haiti still finds a way to champion its own culture. If anything, Carnival, and its accompanying artistic expressions, are Haiti’s way of enduring all that has come before. Art has always been a powerful form of resistance, and Carnival adopts this philosophy to its core. Each mask worn and each costume sewn. Each paint applied and each story passed on through the generations. All of them champion the spirit of Haitian culture, beliefs and identity; all while decrying the injustices that colonisation has inflicted on them. Their adoption of some European customs into their festival is an especially interesting revelation – perhaps a demonstration on how Haitians can take their past and shape it into something of their own. Of the many cultural demonstrations that this documentary showcases, one cited Haitian proverb stands out most of all – “like reeds, we bend but never break”.
Gordon and Hutton Mills utilise vivid arrays of colour to match and embody the passion of Carnival. Meanwhile, black and white cinematography is utilised in recreational footage to tell the story of Haiti’s history. The two different choices distinguish the past and present, but also create a link between them, as if the light of the present is born from the darkness of the past. It is a display of confident direction from the pair, as they uplift the spirits and passions of those interviewed that are partaking in this glorious celebration of art, fashion, dance and history.
“Briskly paced and sometimes visually daring, Kanaval is a capturing and projection of the very spirit that makes Carnival such a celebrated cornerstone of Haiti culture.”
It is an informative and engaging documentary that dives into a relatively underexplored region of the world. However, it is unfortunate that the general structure of this documentary is relatively mundane. As the title declares, this is a story told in six chapters, but the documentary follows a rigid, linear pattern. There’s plenty of fascinating information that’s showcased with some consideration for the cinematic medium. However, the narrative of their lesson sticks to a formulaic routine and does little to diverge from it outside of its colour scheme. It does not subtract from the themes and passion that can be gleaned from the documentary, but it does feel like a fairly safe, if undeniably interesting, source of education.
Nevertheless, documentaries can provide a great resource for those who wish to uncover underappreciated treasure troves of the world. Briskly paced and sometimes visually daring, Kanaval is a capturing and projection of the very spirit that makes Carnival such a celebrated cornerstone of Haiti culture. Far more than a championing of Haitian history and art, it is also a powerful and expressive testament to the very qualities that make Haiti such a great nation. Colonisation remains a tainted past that many countries, on both sides of the conflict, are still coming to terms with to this day. But, as scholars like Ella Shohat and Robert Stam argue, it is only through multiculturalism such as this that representation can become truly decolonised.