Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters (2022)

Kanaval, an immersive documentary by Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton-Mills reveals the traditional and cultural significance of carnival in Haiti with striking footage and in Haitians own words.

Brutal History

by Alexa Dalby

Kanaval

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Possibly the best-known carnivals today are in London and Rio. However, this wide-ranging documentary reveals the darker side of unique historical, political and cultural significance that runs though every Haitian kanaval (carnival in Haitian Creole), here in the Haitian town of Jacmel for Mardi Gras.

The documentary Kanaval illuminates the history, moving between past and present, using both black-and-white and vibrant colour archive footage, feature film extracts, contemporary film and interviews. Local people and participants explain what kanaval means to them: there’s no narrator, which creates compelling authenticity and pace. For Haitians their carnival is not just a once-a-year traditional celebration of music, costumes and dance, where the preparations are equally important. Kanaval is a way of dealing with a history of oppression.

What we know now as Haiti was once the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Black African slaves had their labour exploited to produce cash crops of sugar and coffee for the benefit of French slave owners.

Rebellion and revolution eventually followed. Enslaved Toussaint L’Ouverture led the people to rebellion, until he was captured in 1802 and died in prison in France. Thereafter, Haiti’s first president Jean-Jacques Dessalines established Haiti as the world’s first independent black republic under a constitution of 1805. He renamed it, giving the country back its indigenous inhabitants’ original name. Under him, Haiti became the first country in the Americas to permanently abolish slavery.

But fatally in 1825 in exchange for recognition as an independent republic, Haiti agreed to pay 150 million francs compensation to France for the loss of land and slaves. This would be the equivalent of a massive sum of $20-30 billion today. The impossibly heavy repayments on the loan needed to pay this continued to take 40% of Haiti’s national income for 122 years: the ‘debt’ was only repaid in 1947. Meanwhile, Haiti’s economy was crippled, its ability to prosper severely affected. It is now one of the poorest countries in the world, known for the natural disasters of hurricanes and earthquakes, epidemics, unstable government and, stereotypically, for zombies and voodoo.

Traditionally, kanaval was a way of seeking release from French colonialism and a rare opportunity for political comment. More recently, the brutal dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc have been bravely satirised by groups of men wearing black hats like Papa Doc’s. The documentary shows unpatronisingly how important this possibility of criticism is to the people.

Kanaval is a fascinating documentary that lets Haitians speak for themselves about something we think we know: what it means for them is a cultural experience that’s uniquely Haitian.

Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters screened at the BFI London Film Festival, is released on 6 November 2022 in cinemas in the UK and will be screened in Storyville on BBC Television later in the year.

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