“This is a people’s history, a history from below. A giving of power.”
Visually distinctive and woven with the voices of locals and street performers, Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters presents a rich oral history of Haiti — and has earned its directors Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton-Mills a BIFA nomination for Best Debut Director — Feature Documentary.
We spoke to Leah and Eddie about their storytelling ethos, the bold creative decisions they made as directors, and the use of archive to contrast depictions of Haiti through history. Read the full interview below.
Tell me about the genesis of the film. What made you want to tell this story in documentary form, and how did you join forces as collaborators on the film?
Leah: I’d been documenting Kanaval since 1995. Around about the time of a Caribbean exhibition at the British Library, the BBC were looking for ideas about Caribbean culture. So, I met Natasha Dack – our producer – and she saw that I’d directed a film about Haiti for Channel 4. She got in touch and asked if I’d like to put together some proposals. The proposals were eventually chosen, around the beginning of 2020, when COVID hit. Then we looked for potential co-directors – and it was then that I met Eddie, who I hadn’t met before.
Eddie: We got a bit scuppered by COVID, but that meant we had a long lead up time, we had time to think and talk about it, investigating what we wanted it to be. But it did feel very up in the air at first, and there were times where it felt like it might not happen at all. But we held up our nerve, and went ahead with it at the right time.
Eddie, when you were approached with this project what was your reaction? What drew you to it?
Eddie: My reaction was genuine excitement. I had seen Leah’s book, Kanaval, and knew of her photos already. I’ve always been drawn to Haiti and Haitian culture. Of course, I didn’t know at the time how we’d be collaborating with each other, but I knew I’d do whatever it takes to be involved with this project, because it’s something very close to my heart. It’s an amazing subject and I was getting to work with an amazing artist, and I just thought: this is perfect for me.
What form did the co-directing relationship take: did you assume different responsibilities, points of view?
Leah: I would say when we came back and went into the edit we assumed slightly different responsibilities, because there was quite a lot to do. But in Jacmel we kept everything quite fluid and open, really. In a way, I would say that there were four directors on this film. Joel Honeywell, our cinematographer, and our editor Xanna Ward Dixon brought so much to it. The book is quite central to the aesthetics of the film: my photos are all shot on a very old camera, they’re not photojournalism, and I spent a lot of time finding emptyish streets, almost keeping the Kanaval out of the pictures. We wanted to reflect that in how we filmed the characters, and then flip it. Joel created a beautiful pastoral look that we used for shooting the Kanaval characters, which we shot in quiet areas, and they also came up with that anamorphic Black and White – keeping that relationship with the book.
The other thing that was very important for me to keep from the book was the sense of it being told through oral histories, because I’m aware of the way in which the image of Haiti and the Haitian revolution has been demonized through visual imagery. So it was important for me to contextualize the costumes with oral testimonies. Eddie and I were absolutely on the same page for that.
Eddie: I think one of the things that made it so pleasurable is that we both had a very singular vision. We had a unified idea of how we wanted the characters to be represented, and how we wanted the film to look and feel. We said that this is a People’s History, a History from below. A kind of giving of power. And also, Leah’s been going there since 1995 – she knows everyone there so well. There’s such an intimacy and closeness there, which was a gift for us.
Because we had so much lead up time, we were really able to think about how we wanted it to feel. We storyboarded it, and gave Joel our ideas, which he took on and gave us these incredible images. And Xanna was the same, we talked a lot with her beforehand, and she took it into the edit and created this wonderful lyrical piece. But even in the edit, we were singing very much from the same hymn sheet. In terms of creative output and creative vision, it was a meeting of hearts and minds.
Returning to that idea of oral history: your approach to narration is really interesting, having these voices come through, almost disembodied, telling the story of Haiti together – then revealing the narrators at the end. What was your thought process for that?
Eddie: The book is all about the passing of that oral history. This is voices from the past, voices from the present – and its so vitally important to give people their voice, particularly in Haiti which has always been represented, and demonized, from the outside. But people in Haiti live their history in the streets, and we do show the narrators in the film. There were times when it was suggested we could have a kind of contextualizing, third-person narrative voice coming in, and we did try it – but it was so jarring. It was really hard to make it work. If you read Leah’s book, you really get a sense of the family connections and the stories passed down, and that was a feeling that we really wanted to keep.
Leah: It was also part of a desire not to have another of those documentaries with talking heads and cutaways. We wanted the flow to be quite different, so we were quite minimalist. But everybody does get their moment on the screen – and the nice thing is, I think that people do start recognizing the voices after a while. I don’t think we could have pushed it further than the nine voices we had though.
The camerawork is very kinetic – what setup did you use? How did you capture some of the more dynamic sequences, like the Rope Throwers troupe running through the streets?
Leah: It was shot handheld. We had a ronin for some of the scenes going through the cemetery and the market – and I had absolute trust in Joel. I barely had to give him any direction, I knew he would always do the best thing in any given situation. He ran with it, and in that sequence with the troupe they created a deliberate kind of antagonism with him coming forwards and back, then them coming forwards and back. They conducted a sort of battle dynamic between themselves, which was great – the energy of that scene works so well.
Eddie: We’d also planned to have the steadicam, to give it that sense of a spirit gliding through, a force coming to check in and pace through the locations. It was all shot on ALEXA minis, and Joel was amazing, because he’s this incredible mind who came up with all these bespoke lenses.
Leah: We used a 48 millimetre Mamiya lens, and a 50 millimetre Leica Lomo anamorphic hybrid.
Eddie: And those gave us these really interesting focal depths. Throughout, we wanted the camera to feel part of what we were filming rather than disembodied and apart from it. Because it is all street theatre, and we wanted to play with that idea, play with angles and experiment really. We didn’t want to be too prescriptive – which I think you can fall into, particularly in TV — we wanted to play and create something fresh.
I wanted to ask more about the use of colour – we move from the intense colours of Kanaval to monochrome street photography, what was the decision making behind that?
Leah: For me it’s just a case of it being really nice signposting. But also it’s quite simple: any time you try and shoot a street scene, off Kanaval, in colour, it’s difficult… there’s no way to aestheticize it. But the anamorphic and the black and white really did help. Also, it’s important to say that Lami Okrekson, our camera assistant, their focus pulling was just fantastic. I watched them and Joel work together, and it was only once I ever heard Joel ask to pull to the back. Lami always instinctively knew which person needed to be in focus — and some of those focus pulls are very important to the film and the way that it’s told. They’re not incidental. So that was incredibly talented work I felt, and it was a privilege to watch it.
Eddie: Especially if you’re self-shooting, you forget about the importance of the focus-puller. It’s such a long-forgotten but vital role. It really changed everything, and it gave Joel the headspace to just focus on the actual 3D image. It changes the quality of everything. And actually, it was Xanna who said to us when we got back: “this anamorphic footage is so beautiful, let’s use that as the bed, and then we’ll put everything else around it.” We’d considered doing a sort of day-to-night thing, but actually with the anamorphic footage as the bed we get a sense of carnival character, the sense of history, you’re seeing little scenes, people’s faces…it provided an incredible quality that again came through play, rather than being prescriptive.
Leah: Returning to the focus-pulling, that again put me in the mind of Steve Haisman’s Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the way the camera moves through the scene and finds the characters. That was something I definitely asked Joel to watch – I loved that idea of letting the camera find the characters. Especially at the end, for example, when Bounda pa Bounda is coming through the trees — you never could have done that on a different type of camera or without a focus puller.
Eddie: No way. Joel had an ALEXA and a backpack on up in the mountains, and it was quite a steep mountain as well! It was the same with the Zombie sequence, it’s about letting the camera sneak up on the characters – not front loading the explanation, but taking you there first and then providing the information. It’s that approach to the filmmaking where you’re first led by the scenery, and then told the story – that’s what we wanted to go for.
I’d love to know more about the contributors to the film: how did you find them, research them, and approach them? Do you have a preferred way of conducting your interviews?
Leah: Well, I’ve known them all for years – I’ve been interviewing people around Kanaval since 2003, and photographing them since 1995, so people recognize me. Then also I find that people in Haiti seem less self-conscious on camera, and especially around Kanaval, they end up being almost possessed by their costumes, subconsciously. They’re so used to performing on the streets, the camera doesn’t faze them. Also, we paid quite well – that’s incredibly important. You have to pay your contributors well.
Eddie: And that went for the whole crew as well. In a film that’s so much about representation, we wanted to make sure we weren’t just coming there and being another arm of exploitation. But make no mistake, Leah’s experience and connections from having worked there so long was such a gift. We hung out with everyone and there was a really genuine intimacy that you just don’t normally get. The other thing is this is a moment of pride: they’re sharing stories of history, stories of pain, but they’re doing it in a moment of pride. And it’s a moment to show off! They’d do it whether we were there or not, with the same passion and intensity. I mean, Bounda pa Bounda, we could barely get him to stop performing!
Returning to the idea of how representations of Haiti have been demonising and told from outside perspectives, I think one of the most potent ways you highlight that is through your use of archive. How did you go about researching and employing it?
Eddie: It was very carefully applied. We had a sense that this something that we, and our contributors, wanted to highlight. We did a lot of research about how films had represented Haiti, including those entirely racist Zombie tropes, and that scar on the European tradition of slavery. The racism of those depictions actually does still stick with me. The racism is so open, and we’re talking about quite recent historical depictions too, from the nineties and noughties. But there was so much rich archive to draw from: Leah had some contacts in Canada who had access to a 1930s film made about the Haitian revolution – that was a gift, a complete re-enactment. There was also great stuff that Leah had already shot on 16mm. We used Burn! as well, the film by Gillo Pontecorvo starring Marlon Brando. Our concern was always how archive and verité would interplay, and Xanna controlled that beautifully.
How does it feel to be nominated for a BIFA, and what does it mean to you as filmmakers to be nominated for this award?
Eddie: It’s amazing. You do feel a great honour to be nominated, and receive those congratulations. The BIFAs are a big thing, so it’s very exciting, whether we win or not. The big thing for us, superseding everything, is how we’ve represented Haiti – how the people in the film experience it will always be the real award.
Leah: And we are planning to take it back to the next Kanaval in Haiti and play it in the centre square! We’ll fly down, take a big inflatable screen and a big projector, and my partner — who is Haitian and is in the film — says we won’t be able to play it just once: we’ll play it the first time and a second time days later, once word has spread around the town.