St. Moritz Art Film Festival


Leah Gordon

2021 Color PG En/en 01:10:00

KANAVAL is a visually arresting award-winning feature documentary that is set in the present but tells the rich story of Haiti’s past, as we follow a number of carnival performers in the lead up to and during the annual Jacmel Mardi Gras. These performers relate their own personal histories as well as the stories of their carnival characters, representing moments and people from the distant and not so distant Haitian past.

Interwoven with the interviews, testimonies and observational footage, is archive material drawn from a wide variety of sources to enhance our understanding of Haitian history and

culture from the time of the indigenous Taino through to the present day.

Every year in Jacmel, a small coastal city in the south of Haiti, local people take to the streets during carnival time to perform and commemorate moments from the unique history of

their country and to pay homage to their Vodou spirits. Leah Gordon, one of the co-directors,

started documenting Jacmel’s carnival in 1995 and returned subsequently over the next 24 years to photograph the carnival characters to produce the celebrated book, Kanaval, which was published in 2010 and updated and republished 2021.

This is not a carnival of sequins and sound systems found elsewhere in the Caribbean, but a

celebration of rebellion and resistance resonating through the centuries. Whatever Jacmel

carnival lacks in glitz and spectacle; it makes up for in home-grown surrealism and poetic metaphors. The lives of the indigenous Taino Indians, the Slaves’ Revolt of 1791, the establishment of Haiti as the western hemisphere’s first Black Republic in 1804, the debt forced upon Haiti by the French, and more recently state corruption are all played out using drama and costume on Jacmel’s streets during Carnival - or ‘Kanaval’ in Haitian Kreyol.

There are extravagant, many-peopled troupes which can totally overtake the streets, such as the Zel Maturin, satin clad devils in papier maché masks with four-foot hinged wooden wings which they smack together dangerously and the Lanse Kòd, hordes of behorned, shirt-less men, skin shining with an oily patina of cane spirit, syrup and charcoal, who rage the streets, ropes in hand, before diving communally into the ocean at the end of the day. But there are also lone, idiosyncratic performers too, for whom the character and costume rep-

resent their own intensely personal spiritual visions, such as Bounda pa Bounda, who enacts a Vodou vision given to him by the spiritss in a dream.

Kanaval is people taking history into their own hands and moulding it into whatever they decide.

Leah Gordon