This film is being screened as part of the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. You can find all of our coverage of the festival here.
This visually stunning and highly engrossing documentary tells the history of Haiti through the lens of the pre-Lenten festival of carnival. It is a cinematic masterpiece in story-telling and one which leaves you wishing for more.
Every now and then a real gem of a documentary comes along. Grey Gardens, Man on Wire, anything by Ken Burns — all of them iconic. Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters will be another such film. The movie is incredible from start to finish. As told via interviews with various carnival troupes, we are lead through the history of Haiti. But that is almost too simplistic to describe what we actually see and hear onscreen. Carnival (for those unfamiliar) is a massive (and massively encouraged) celebration in primarily Catholic countries before the very dull and dismal Lent begins. In Jacmel, Haiti, where our film takes place, the celebrations are prepped months and years in advance. People create exquisite masks and eye catching costumes, for various troupes to celebrate this significant holiday. As the film takes care to note, there’s a historical thread which ties the narrative together.
Kanaval does an excellent job of portraying each troupe so that the viewer understands that specific part of Haitian history. For those unfamiliar with it, you will certainly learn a lot. Many historically significant events are covered, including the Haitian revolution of 1791. This latter event lead to France demanding 150 million francs from Haiti to secure their independence, which pushed the country into debt until 1947. This debt greatly hampered the economy of Haiti, and the long-term impact is shown in the film.
Sometimes, in documentaries, it is common for an omnipresent outsider to do a narration. This often has a deleterious effect on a film. Thankfully Kanaval avoids this by having the subjects themselves provide the narration. In tandem with excellent editing skills, flicking back and forth between colour, B&W, past and present, a beautiful tapestry is woven. Additionally, the score embraces the viewer with melodies. Drums, singing, and other forms of rhythm and song are heard throughout, as eye-catching cinematography crosses the screen. It really is a film where it seems as though every facet came together perfectly.
The interviewees are shown both in and out of costume and go into great depth to describe the historical significance behind their outfit. All the accoutrements have their own meaning, from cow’s teeth to body paint. It is clear that when you watch Jacmel’s carnival, you are not just watching a celebration, but centuries of history. Artists, musicians, and dancers all work together to ensure that this history is seen and understood. The importance of remembering that history comes across clearly.
Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters is a must-see documentary. To not do so would be robbing yourself of a chance to not only understand Haiti’s history, but miss out on on a feast for the eyes and ears.
Words by Jordan Cracknell
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