Saturday, January 16, 2010

Shadows Over Haiti

The White Darkness(2002)
Directed By Richard Stanley
Before and after I watched Richard Stanley's documentary about Haitian vodou (or "voodoo" anglicised), "The White Darkness" I was bombarded with a reel to reel stream of corpses and rubble on CNN and most major news channels. I had wanted to see the movie for some time now, out of nerdy interest in Haiti Ive had since I was boy (I even wrote a short story once called "Bwa Kayiman" Their Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in human history (unless you include the Moses story or "Gladiator"). And the practitioners of vodou believe like conservative evangelical paranoiacs Pat Robertson that their religion played a role in their victory. Where they differ, is that for Robertson everything outside of Christianity is basically paganism which is defacto satanism, while for vodouists the ceremenoy that night was a prayer like any other that would have been made in a time of need (unlike most prayer's it happened to be work). This argument is not isolated though, as Christian missionaries and a military Col. in charge of humanitarian aid (who lost his job as result of this film) echo Robertson's statements and brazenly go so far as to say their jobs are one and the same; that their can be no true democracy without Christianity. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, depending in large on foreign aid to sustain themselves. Vodou's syncrenetic relationship with Catholicism abides these challenges, where Lao spirits sever as stand-in's for Catholic saints, allowing them to publicly function as Catholics if need be, but preserve among themselves their own traditions and meanings. Richard Stanley as a director of horror and sci-fi seems well aware of the cultural associations westerners apply to the religion; zombie's, voodoo dolls, and ritual sacrifice, etc, and so illuminates the impartial narrator normal to documentaries. My first exposure to voodoo and I suspect that of most people comes from things like the "based-on-true-events" b-horror movie "The Serpent And The Rainbow", the Bond film featuring Paul Mcartney's only good post-Beatles song "Live and Let Die", and my personal favorite (and Halloween costume I could never get together) the satirical Jim Crow from "The Invisibles".In the white darkness (a title loaded with double meanings) Stanley, gives the words only to Haitian vodouists and Haitian occupying American missionaries and soldiers. Stanley does not interview non-vodouist Haitian's nor does he look at non-Haitian vodouist's, which might have made the film more well-rounded and balanced in a traditional way if he had (correction: there is one Haitian historian in the bunch). However, what makes this a film and not a history channel program is it's choice not to do just that. Stanely looks at the ritual's in Herzogian fashion attempting to capture their drama, energy (after all Lao is energy), beauty, and horror which at times almost threatens to sensationalize the film. Like Jean Rouch's similar ethnographic study "The Mad Masters" it walks a fine line between illumination and distortion. Fortunately the various priests, healer's and drummer's (dance and music are integral to ritual life) we meet ground the film into a series easy to understand cultural vignettes. Stanley cleverly edits together perspectives of the Christians and the Vodouists, to create it's own syncretic clashing of images and words echoing the way the religion has structured itself around it's colonial history. Eisenstein would be proud of this kind of montage that is in the truest sense a clash of ideas. There are many beautiful landscape shots letting us breath in the tranquil beauty of the island, luring us into a soft trance, before dragging us into a drum circle full of chants and exaltation's, likened by one participant as being similar to "time-travel". Richard Stanley will likely be remembered more for his horror, and sf, like his South-African demon hunt "Dust Devil", but from this documentary he seems a multi-talented guy, every bit the auteur with realism as he is with fantasy. Not the first filmmaker to attempt to broach this subject, American experimental film pioneer Maya Deren created both a well regarded book and a film on the subject called "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti", which I will be tracking down some and am curious to see how they will stack up together. There is no shortage of horrible images still coming across the screen from the Haiti of today, and though their are probably better films from and about the country, it was fascinating and ominous to see the living, vibrant, completely unique corner of the earth that is still present somewhere beneath the rubble. If your in the mood for exploring other routes to spirituality and looking at something else besides real-time long-suffering, relax and let Stanley's white darkness envelop you. It's cooler in the shade anyway, and in vodou tempreture of spirit, particularly "coolness", is of high value.

No comments: