I have rarely seen a people pray as much as Haitians do

The legacies of colonialism and the African slave trade on religious practices in the African diaspora.

Still from film Douvan Jou Ka Leve.

When Douvan Jou Ka Leve (“The Sun Will Rise”) received the “Best Documentary Feature” award at Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival in August 2018, its director, Gessica Généus was not present. Généus did not make it to Philadelphia, site of the US premiere of her film, at all. Instead, she was home in Haiti where protests had erupted in the country’s capital, Port-Au-Prince, following the government’s attempt to raise fuel prices in early July 2018. Her absence at the festival felt like a clear indication of where her loyalties lie. Généus’ film does not fall prey to the same afflictions of, for example, the late V.S. Naipaul, an Indo-Caribbean writer whose portrayals of Africa and other parts of the Third World were often unsympathetic, and yet Nobel Prize-worthy. (Edward Said described Naipaul as “a third worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites.”)

Douvan Jou Ka Leve begins with a narrated introduction of the enduring legacies of colonialism, the African slave trade, and contemporary religious practice. Généus describes how in addition to the servitude of forced labor, a mental servitude was imposed through Christianity’s elevation of whiteness to godliness. God was not only a reflection of divinity, but a theological-cum-panopticonal projection of white colonial omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. In French, she says: “Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean, yet I have rarely seen a people pray as much.” She continues: “So what are we doing wrong? How long will we have to pay? What is this debt that we need to reimburse?” The radical inquiry is not quiet here. (And anyway, interrogations of colonialism are not suited for subtlety.)

A subjugated blackness—a colonial scriptural interpretation of the curse of Ham from the Book of Genesis—is punishment for endeavoring to be free. “Emancipation instituted indebtedness,” writes Saidiya Hartman. The biblical analogy is easy not only because contemporary Haitian social tensions are situated within a matrix of religious institutions, but also because of how we can understand Haiti’s social and economic condition as a karmic and material punishment for becoming the world’s first independent Black republic: a successful revolt of self-liberated enslaved peoples of what was called Saint-Domingue against a colonial superpower, both trans-Atlantic humiliation and inspiration. The racialized nature of the curse—one placed by Noah upon Ham’s line after his father, Canaan, saw his father, Noah, in the nude—is a misreading of Old Testament scripture. But its absorption into Eurocentric theologies imposed upon Haiti have been profound. Noah’s curse applied only to Ham’s eldest son, Cush: per old Babylonic Talmudic tradition, Cush (also “Kush”) was of sub-Saharan African descent and so all of his accursed lineage who bore the curse “smitten in [their] skin” were condemned to punishment both in this earthly realm and in the next life. Religion was the vector that would impose-justify this punishment and could also deliver sweet relief from it—Généus uses this battle for spiritual legitimacy as analogy. The often-desperate religiosity evokes parallels on the African continent’s for-profit prophet-industrial complex where Pentecostal churches and their leadership claim to be able to provide otherworldly solutions to material crises ranging from poverty to unfaithful spouses to nightmares to demonic possession and spiritual husbands to cancer and blindness and AIDS.

It is through these meeting and competing religio-cultural and biomedical frames that mental illness as the island’s sickness is understood. Over and over, Généus shows images of churchgoers overtaken by spiritual energies. She shows one woman being gently restrained and soothed by a nearby male congregant because she is convulsing and speaking in tongues and, with eyes rolled into her head, in a trancelike state. As she visits an asylum looking for paperwork, we see female residents behind a grated window speaking in ways we might call unintelligible. One woman says she does not wish to serve the devil anymore and that “the people” here serve Lucifer. A woman beside her with a tremor shares that she stopped taking her medications, and they now inject her with something that makes her shake. A shot of a “crazy” woman with bound hands and feet fades seamlessly into another of a church service where, once again, the congregation is swept in religious fervor. What is the difference, this juxtaposition implores, between speaking in tongues because one is channeling the holy spirit and the frenetic and incomprehensible speech from a manic episode (especially when some people claim to hear the voice of God or the devil during auditory hallucinations)?

Mental illness, to some Haitians, is a residual madness from the Vodou that was conjured on the eve of the Haitian Revolution. The ceremony at Bwa Kayiman/Bois Caïman—the Vodou ceremony commonly understood as the start of the revolution—can either be interpreted as the ancestral conjuring and interaction that animated the Haitians to fight for their freedom or, per Haitian evangelists and Protestants, a pact with the devil with lasting consequences. Pat Robertson invoked this negative characterization in his comments after the earthquake, saying that Haitians have “been cursed by one thing after the other” ever since. The devil pact theory justifies both stigmatization of mentally ill people and reactionary [hyper]religiosities, and Généus personalizes this friction in her journey to learn about her mother’s own mental illness. Motherhood is a memetic, but nevertheless useful, analogy for one’s relationship to land, violence, memory, suffering, and, of course, redemption.

In attempting to narrativize struggles of both homeland and diaspora, we often encounter creative pulls in multiple but equally strong directions. In one direction is a reductive flattening where our nostalgia compels us to romanticize and sanitize native conflicts and struggles because we are afraid of providing ammunition to whites who will inevitably weaponize such traumas against us. In another direction, our witnessing and experiences of corruption and patriarchy can lead us to conclude that our flaws and lagging development lie with us alone. But with artistic grace, and while balancing a clear anticolonial counter-narrative with affective and evocative cinematography, Généus indicts both the violence of colonialism and postcolonial moral-religious economies that are maintained by Haitian people (while still clearly depicting them as a product of material desperation). In 2017, another Haitian film, Guetty Felin’s Ayiti Mon Amour, screened at BlackStar. It too, through magical realism, resists the temptation of offering filmgoers a Haiti that is singularly familiarized to us through post-earthquake strife.

The documentary form can often be fraught because of a presumed objectivity in capturing or attempting to communicate a particular subject, as though we can ever observe or record without either act being imbued with our own values and meaning. Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide (2018) offered a documentation of the “controversy” around Rachel Dolezal by giving her an opportunity to tell her story in her own words. Brownson challenges Dolezal only once, largely allowing her story to “speak for itself” and inviting viewers to form their own conclusions. But if Dolezal’s identity and relationship to blackness were so self-explanatory, then how has she been a topic of debate since 2015? Is it not the responsibility of a documentarian to contextualize the intentions and values of the film and its subject matter? Douvan Jou Ka Leve is a beautiful example of documentary storytelling done right—through its deft interweaving of the personal and the macro-cultural, it illustrates a politic that is messy and unresolved while also depicting an individual’s opportunity for personal peace and reconciliation.

Further Reading