'Royal Bonbon'—Entranced and Entrancing

Great creative 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 Kingdom—a 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 Haiti’s present is so strong that, some say, it compromises Haiti’s 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 that’s 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 Bonbon—from the name of one of King Christophe’s personal guards—a film that certainly doesn’t 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 [Haiti’s bush taxis]. In the shadows, quick-striding pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds carrying three passengers pass by precariously built huts and shacks.
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 pond—and 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 Haiti’s independence in 1804.

The country became the first black republic in the world, after having rudely repulsed Napoleon’s 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. It’s 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. Haiti’s relationship with its history is neurotic; its memory is haunted. This is what interests me—this memory in the skin, lodged in the body—not 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 history’s 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,” Najman jests.

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 Haiti’s aristocrats. It was completely natural to portray them as the king’s 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 who’ve kept this musical tradition alive (it’s a mix of African rhythms, flute music, and old French melodies). Later, the village children parade around, singing, “Cocoyer pour tout moun, allons-y, Alonso”—“Coconuts for everybody, let’s go, Alonso,” invoking Jean Vigo, Jean-Luc Godard....[“Allons-y, Alonso,” a play on words from Godard’s film Pierrot le fou].
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 actor’s 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.”

That’s the problem. Because the film uses Haiti’s 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 country’s poverty to enrich themselves with international subsidies. The graffiti on Haiti’s walls that used to say “Viv Titid” [Long live Titid, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s nickname] now proclaim “A ba Aristide cochon” [Down with the Pig Aristide].

What or who exactly is to blame? Is it Haiti’s double linguistic allegiance—French 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 dimension.