Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"Children" of the Gods: Filming the Private Rituals of Haitian Vodou

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"Children" of the Gods: Filming the Private Rituals of Haitian Vodou

Article excerpt

As storytelling media, documentary film and photography have provided a useful and necessary space of affirmation for non-heterosexual family forms in Western culture.1 In such diffusions, individual and personal voices, alone or stitched together, may come to represent and account for broader group experiences and realities, subsequently altering received perceptions of the group as well as offering possibilities for viewer identification. Communities are thus bound and imagined through the multivocal threads of these localized visual performances.2 Expressions of "non-normative" sexuality in the context of the Caribbean, due to histories of colonialism and slavery, are often formulated around a binary: these expressions are considered to be trailing behind more "progressive" Western models of homosexuality or they are branded a foreign imposition.3 However, this binary is a false one. Caribbean gender identities are in fact far closer to Western "egalitarian" models than this binary would have us believe.

This study will focus on the photographic and filmic documentation of the private rituals of the Afro-Caribbean syncretic religion of Vodou in Haiti and how expressions of cross-gender and, in particular, cross-gender dress manifest themselves both privately and publicly in relation to notions of religious collectivity, family and class structure within and through these portrayals. As Wade Davis explains in his definition of Vodou:

Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day life of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.4

Vodou responds to reality, working practically with everyday concerns to heal when deemed necessary within the community. Vodou's syncretic and encompassing system enables alternative collaborations and multifaceted challenges to the dualistic relationship of film subject (outside) and filmmaker and viewer (inside).

This essay will focus on contemporary visual documentation of the private rituals of Vodou that challenge the predominance of an interdependent "us" and "them" dialectic, underpinning how Haiti has historically been imaged and represented. Following the earthquake which revealed the "bodies that matter" and the persistent discriminatory regard towards both Vodou and "non-normative" sexualities,5 such filmic histories are, more than ever, crucial contestations to an image problem, that Gina Athena Ulysse has referred to as "Haiti's burden."6 In order to unpick this scopic relationship, the analysis presented here deals primarily with the implicated role of the filmmaker and spectator in relation to the works discussed, while also considering the images from the perspective of the Vodou practitioners themselves. The first part of this essay addresses filmic representation of the more popular expression of cross-dressing found in carnival representation, using the work of British artist Leah Gordon, whose 2008 film, Boundapa Bounda: A Drag £aka, depicts drag parody performed within the Rara band tradition in Haiti.7 With little at stake, due to the ephemeral and sanctioned nature of what can be seen as harmless gender mimicry, the ease with which such temporary crossover is obtained makes the act a particularly intrusive form of impersonation. The man, adopting female dress, carelessly forays into the sphere of the Other (the woman), without any concern for "realness" in order to mock that which he does not successfully emulate what Helen Gilbert terms a "spectacle of not passing."8 As a process of reinscribing and renewing aesthetic standards however, it constitutes an important means of emphasizing prevailing modes of representation. While Bounda pa Bounda shows male virility superficially masked in parody of the female body, the second part of this essay focuses on small visual signifiers of cross-gender dress that denote sexual desire and demonstrate more permanence in their embodiment. …

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