Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters review – spirited and striking

An impressive documentary reveals the radical significance of carnival celebrations in the making of a nation with a dark, difficult past

Exuberant and historically rich, Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills’s engrossing documentary charts centuries of Haitian history through the lens of carnival celebrations. The country has witnessed unspeakable atrocities but carnival serves not only as a reminder of the past, but also as a radical act of oral storytelling and collective solidarity in the face of oppression.

Shot in the port town of Jacmel, Kanaval highlights the overt political consciousness of the region’s carnival troupes. From the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the revolutions against French colonial rule, and the dictatorship of François Duvalier, historical events are translated into costumes, ranging from the colourful papier-mache of animal heads to everyday materials such as cow’s teeth or dried wheat. The integration of these important chapters of Haitian nationhood into carnival performances shows how folk tradition can function as a form of popular dissent. Against dominant Eurocentric narratives, carnival is also an avenue into which local people can insert their own voices.

The use of archival footage highlights the radical significance of these celebrations. Excerpts of old Hollywood movies, where Haiti is designated as a horror-stricken land of dark magic, are juxtaposed with carnival acts where Voudou emerges as a spiritual incentive for enslaved Haitians to reclaim their freedom. Retro reels of performers dressed up in caricature versions of Duvalier reveal the bravery hidden underneath the playfulness. More than a mini lesson on Haiti, this captivating film shows that the making of a nation is not confined to history books; it can be found on the streets as well.

• Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters is released on 6 November in cinemas.


Phuong Le

The GuardianTramp

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