KANAVAL: A People’s history of Haiti in Six Chapters

Kanaval is a visceral and engaging lesson given on the history of Haiti through the device of the carnival that takes place in the country in the early weeks of each year. This documentary is vivid and loud as it showcases the preparations that the people of Jacmel carry out in the lead up to Mardi Gras.

         Utilising black and white shots interspersed with celebratory, dynamic colour, both directors, Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton-Mills, make the vibrancy and stand out nature of Kanaval all the more obvious. Though the content and message behind much of the festivities is something rather dark and full of grief for those involved, a joyous energy is still maintained. The topic of the cruelty that was suffered by the people in Haiti while enslaved under colonialist rule is never shied away from, and though the imagery is not overtly graphic, the message is heard. The tonal balance is preserved well, reflecting this exact same balance enacted in the celebrations as the Haitians recall their own history with a strong respect and an air of relief. This is showcased through the strong, symbolic imagery of young boys being smeared with bright red paint near the beginning, similar to being covered in blood as a signifier of the bloody history endured by the Haitian people. Despite this, the children do not remain stoically unhappy as they erupt into celebration and partake in the loud marches and music.

         Kanaval avoids being a tokenistic representation made to satisfy the meek curiosity of the Global Northern world, possibly due to both directors having a great personal interest in Haiti and its history. Between Hutton-Mills’ repertoire of documentaries based around race issues and postcolonialism and Gordon’s photographic work on the Island and her previous film, Iron in the Soul: The Haiti Documentary Films of Leah Gordon, which she worked on over 11 years, their platforming of the Haitian people rather than speaking over them is in line with work they have previously produced. Instead, Kanaval reads easily as a storytelling, each of the six chapters being narrated by a resident of Jacmel as they recount, not only the story behind each troupes’ performances, but also why they themselves carry it out each year. From the original indigenous tribe that would have lived on Haiti, to the enslavement of people on the island to their own political corruption surrounding the dictatorial Duvalier dynasty that erupted into violent outbreaks, it is all embraced as part of the celebrations and showcased alongside historical clips and oral tellings which heightens the sense of cultural impact each of these events had for Haiti and its people. This assists in helping the documentary to swiftly become something deeply personal, less of an observation and more of an open sharing of culture and history. Everything is laid out to see, not just the flaws of colonialist cruelty, but the issues that arose between Haitians themselves and both Gordon and Hutton-Mills refuse to hide away the ugly parts that may scare off those beyond the island borders. A woman who practices voodoo is allowed to share her story without any lens of judgement or fear mongering micronarratives that have been prevalent in some representations of this practice. The violent uprising and revolt of the harsh socio-political climate of the late 20th Century is shown without refrain. Kanaval has the power to open up mass audiences to a world that could be easily overlooked. In spite of that power, it pushes to be something authentic, a true reflection of the Carnival that it itself represents.

Adelaide Thermes Kane