an area of the map for world news.
March 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 3)
Potel, Libération (left-wing), Paris, France,
Jan. 2, 2002
minds have dreamed of it. Eisenstein had a screenplay that never
became a film; it was one of Orson Welles aborted ideas.
In the heart of a twisted mountain range, towering above the
Haitian village of Milot, stand the romantic ruins of Sans Souci
palace, built early in the 19th century by the visionary black
monarch Henri Christophe.
Higher and even less accessible in the mountains, this ruler
built a citadel to defend his Northern Kingdoma massive,
soaring citadel that Haitians have venerated for two centuries
as both proof of their greatness and sanctuary for their well-peopled
imagination. This is where Christophe was buried after his suicide,
although nobody knows exactly where. For decades, people in
Haiti have talked about making a film up there,
a film about a past whose hold on Haitis present is so
strong that, some say, it compromises Haitis future.
Filmmaker Charles Najman put together a French-Canadian-Haitian
crew and temporarily took over the Sans Souci site, the most
valuable national treasure of a poor country thats getting
poorer. For six weeks last fall, Najman used the Cap-Haïtien
region, in the north of the island, as the backdrop for a drama
titled Royal Bonbonfrom the name of one of King Christophes
personal guardsa film that certainly doesnt resemble
any previous creation.
By the dim light of dawn, a bus carrying the film crew moves
along a chaotic track full of tap-taps [Haitis bush taxis].
In the shadows, quick-striding pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds
carrying three passengers pass by precariously built huts and
The bus is heading for Bassin Diamant (Diamond Hollow), a site
lost in the remote mountains, where a voodoo ceremony is supposed
to take place. Najman has managed to get a voodoo permit
to shoot the event, which consists of a white piece of paper
covered with writing reminiscent of the pictorial inscriptions
of Antonin Artaud.
Under gigantic breadfruit trees lies a waterhole the size of
a swimming pool. Blocking the path to the pool is a big rock,
upon which, motionless, meditates the mambo (voodoo priestess)
Angélique Fénelon, the Marquise of the zanj
(spirit), her prominent cheekbones slashed by two lightning
bolts painted there.
The head of the camera crew, Josée Deshaies, is restless.
The sun is going to leave the priestess face before Josée
can shoot unless the celebrants go ahead and push their little
boat loaded with offerings out into the middle of the pondand
the middle of the camera angle. Angélique is crooning
an ancient melody in Creole. Then the drummers arrive, women
with dazzling headscarves, and a character named Complot (Plotter)
who directs the dance. The voodoo can wait until the filmmakers
are ready, but once the ritual gets going and the space is filled
to overflowing with entranced and writhing bodies, nothing can
stop it, and the filmmakers have to do the best they can.
Later, the extras dress up as Nègres marrons (slaves
who fled the plantations and found refuge in the forest), pulling
on hoods and smearing motor oil over their bodies, and slip
between the trees, their torches lit. Najman, steering a course
between ethnology and fiction, is making reference to the revolt
that started in the Bois Cayman (Alligator Woods) on Aug. 14,
1791, which led to the abolition of slavery and later to Haitis
independence in 1804.
The country became the first black republic in the world, after
having rudely repulsed Napoleons expeditionary army, led
by Gen. Leclerc. An event that this displaced people, ripped
out of Africa to die in the thousands at sea or in the cane
fields under French whips, will never forget.
After writing a book and making several documentaries in Haiti,
Najman returned to the island to shoot what you could call a
tale of madmen. Haiti is always expecting a messiah, or at least
a messenger. Its not unusual to run into wandering loonies
convinced they are Dessalines [Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a liberation
hero who became the first ruler of independent Haiti] or this
very same King Christophe, who Haitians see as an enlightened
despot who left behind something of beauty where
so many have left nothing.
In the film, an ex-soldier turned wheelbarrow man, played by
the poet Dominique Batraville, is gripped by an insanity inspired
by Christophe and goes off to spout nonsense in the majestic
surroundings of Sans Souci and the Citadel, accompanied by a
street kid (Benji, discovered among the orphans
of Cap-Haïtien) and by a peasant farmer whom the new monarch
makes his aide-de-camp (Ambroise Thompson, an elderly man of
a supernatural beauty who was a tourist guide back when tourists
still came to Haiti). The wheelbarrow man leaves the tracks
of his shaky, hesitant appeal throughout the film, adorned with
a baroque crown and evoking a kind of Ubu.
Here, says Najman, I have found something
that reminds me of the Jewish villages of Poland, with the fairy-tale
imagination of the shtetl and a dizzy philosophy of joy in the
midst of misery. Haitis relationship with its history
is neurotic; its memory is haunted. This is what interests methis
memory in the skin, lodged in the bodynot a historic retelling.
And also a kind of communal, egalitarian, free, childlike utopia,
which stands for something real here. History has remained frozen,
confiscated by a narrow elite that drives around in air-conditioned
cars. To juxtapose the immensity of a citadel with the cracked
vision of a man who comes from nothing, from nowhere, means
to restore historys dream, means to get inside the head
of a man who dreams of the grandeur of that history.
On the aesthetic plane, Najman has created a mental space that
is totally sealed off, a stylized, phantom-filled space that
rejects naturalistic reportage and refers to the real country
only when the very personal whims of the filmmaker call for
it. Think of it as a cross between [French anthropologist
and director Jean] Rouch and [German filmmaker Werner] Herzog,
Today, once again, the king is dead. Around his mortal remains
the peasants of Milot stand at a respectful distance. A cry,
a chant, erupts. The Duchess of Pointed Hat is in top
form. Najman says with satisfaction after the scene is
shot, To my mind, the peasants are Haitis aristocrats.
It was completely natural to portray them as the kings
court in the film. We witnessed scenes where people spoke to
Dominique as if he were really Christophe. These real
aristocrats call each other, quite seriously, Duke Marmalade
or Count Lemonade and dance the minuet and the quadrille.
Najman found a group of musicians whove kept this musical
tradition alive (its a mix of African rhythms, flute music,
and old French melodies). Later, the village children parade
around, singing, Cocoyer pour tout moun, allons-y,
AlonsoCoconuts for everybody, lets
go, Alonso, invoking Jean Vigo, Jean-Luc Godard....[Allons-y,
Alonso, a play on words from Godards film Pierrot
Later, the king pronounces in Creole, Anfin enmi yap
avansé. Yo anba ponyet nou, nap fout yo on leson pou
listwa...nou pral krazé yo...jus souf mwen bout.
Freely translated this means, The French had better get
ready for a surprise. Which French? Napoleon or Najman?
The Haitians immediately grasp the actors intentional
ambiguity and burst out laughing. Batraville puts it this way:
In this film I was about 90 percent successful at saving
the soul of Haiti, which is fading away.
Thats the problem. Because the film uses Haitis
heroic past but turns it completely around, it risks trampling
on Haitians highly developed sensitivities. The re-examination
of history can only haunt a country that is sinking deeper into
economic quicksand and must suffer the advice of well-meaning
foreigners. Is it this brutal past that retards economic development?
Or is it the ruling classes who speculate on the countrys
poverty to enrich themselves with international subsidies. The
graffiti on Haitis walls that used to say Viv
Titid [Long live Titid, President Jean-Bertrand Aristides
nickname] now proclaim A ba Aristide cochon
[Down with the Pig Aristide].
What or who exactly is to blame? Is it Haitis double linguistic
allegianceFrench for the educated, Creole for everybody
else? Or is it the rampant emigration that deprives Haiti of
its skilled workers (one-third of Haitians live abroad)? Or
American policy, which opposes the local cultivation of rice
in favor of American-grown rice?
Some accuse voodoo, which has survived both colonialism and
modern capitalism, and whose increasingly open vitality seems
rather to be saving Haiti from despair. Others point to the
anarchic refusal of a people fed up with drudgery and any kind
of system. Between Western-style progress and the totalitarian
Blackness ethic of the old Duvalier dictatorship, Haiti is searching
for its path.
Najman, in his contact with this repeatedly traumatized people,
traces the work of memory in its most inaccessible and radical