Kanaval: keeping Haiti’s history alive

Cinematic in its style, offbeat in its storytelling, the BBC’s Kanaval – a documentary portrayal of Haiti’s annual carnival – showcases the island’s left-field and grassroots tales of revolution. Husna Ara speaks to co-director Leah Gordon.

In contrast to the stately, often masculine, histories of postcolonial nations, Kanaval is refreshingly capacious. Instead of opting for the boilerplate format of select officials recollecting the past accompanied by grainy news archives, the film subverts the typical format. Instead it asks: how do ordinary Haitians conceive of their history? It is both strange and welcome to tell the story of postcolonial revolt and totally circumscribe the state.

Shot in black and white, the film’s style mirrors its narrative experimentation. With what co-director Leah Gordon calls an almost ‘mystical lens’ developed by cinematographer Joel Honeywell, Kanaval quietly observes the eccentric and varied carnival troupes, telling people’s individual stories of the island. One for instance, consists of a single middle-aged man, ‘Bunda pa Bunda’, whose costume – gender-fluid, slightly amorphous and jubilant – points to the levity, child-like wonder and freedom Kanaval grants. Another vignette follows a group of machismo youngsters, lifting weights with determination and retelling the story of Touissant Louverture, a leader of the 1791 Haitian Revolution, in which enslaved people began their successful revolt against the colonial, plantation system.

Gordon, whose background is in arts and curation, says that some of these troupes have been performing for decades. She has been a regular at the Jacmel parade since 1991, photographing it since 1995. Hailing from Northwest England and inspired by stories of solidarity and culpability between the British working class and the plantation system, Gordon, who co-directed the film with another British director Eddie Hutton-Mills, believes that ‘all revolutions are connected’ and describes her point of view as ‘transnational’,

‘I’m aware of the way Haiti has been demonized since the slaves’ revolt – and the use of visual culture to demonize it,’ she explains, adding that the idea was to complicate existing representations of the carnival, ‘so they don’t get read in this singular way’.

A man stands adorned in a simple white wedding dress, in 'an almost-drag'. (Jacmel, 1996) Credit: Leah Gordon

Going back in 2004 to find out the stories behind the costumes, snowballed into a deeper project, bringing to the surface multiple histories from different points of view. When the production team returned to interview the troupes in 2022, they were meeting the sons and daughters of those very people taking up the traditions and customs.

Rich histories can be gleaned from just the troupes' costumes – stitched together from inventive materials such as cow’s teeth. ‘If you think of the Haitian Revolution, they had to be pretty scary on a low budget to beat the French. That passes down through the centuries – doing big things on a small budget. There’s hardly a feather or sequin to be seen,’ says Gordon.

Other troupes opt for more straightforward – almost difficult to watch – retellings of enslavement and genocide. From the poetic to the political, and completely in Creole, Kanaval shows history from multiple vantage points, offering depth, detail and music to the documentary concept of vox pops.

What most pleased me is how naturally spirituality translated onto the screen during this film. Speaking about voodoo, Gordon says that ‘it’s hard to imagine Haitian voodooists having a crisis of faith in the same way that Catholics or Anglicans do. Everyone talks about it as if it is all around you. You didn’t have to draw it out of anyone. It’s an accepted part of reality.’

Teeming with sensorial details, humour and pain, Kanaval is an ode to the troupes, punters, flaneurs and meanderers who keep Haiti’s history alive and heterogeneous through performance.

Kanaval premieres on BBC Arena on Sunday 27 November.

Ed Cross will present Kanaval, a solo show of photography and film from Leah Gordon, 11 January – 18 February 2023. Private view and screening 10 January 6-8pm, Ed Cross, 19 Garrett Street, London, EC1Y 0TY.