Achantè, from the French ‘Enchante’ meaning both ‘enchanted’ and ‘it is enchanting to make your acquaintance’, combines narrative and documentary film making techniques to produce a moving and atmospheric portrait of Haitian Vodou.
Image driven, with little dialogue, it communicates the immersive experience of Haitian Vodou from inside the peristyle, or Vodou temple. The film’s participants are Vodouisants from across the country, who have all agreed to contribute their own unique takes on their faith, highlighting the special relationships between each practitioner and the individual ‘Lwa’, or spirits.
Vodou is comprised of elements of Christianity and belief systems from several African nations, but is a faith completely unique to Haiti that is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular media. In a distinct break from the conventional format employed by documentary film makers, Achante has turned over a great deal of creative control to the film’s participants. Rather than emphasizing what is tre and able to be proven, Achante combines descriptions, narratives and impressions from within Vodou, inviting the audience to participate in the events of the film, and to leave the theatre with fresh questions. An abstract narrative brings the voices of the Haitian participants together, and has been overseen and approved by those involved at every step. The ‘above the line’ contributions came from every single person in the film, and it was essential to the team that the participants see the film and approve before it was screened to a broader audience.
In keeping with the directives of the cast and crew, the film focuses on four key themes: creation, revolution, redemption and the crossroads – a point of spiritual transition from the world of the living to the world of the spirits and the dead.
The film’s skeleton crew, hailing from Canada and the UK, spent several months in Haiti, training a Haitian crew of technicians and spending time in Vodou communities in the south of the country. The film’s participants are all Vodou practitioners, and each was given free reign to contribute whatever they chose to the film. In some cases, we were invited to a feast day or ceremony at a local peristyle and permitted to film, in some cases the Vodouisants contributed stories or tableau style portraits of the Lwa, but more often the participants preferred to be ‘mounted’ by the spirit they chose. In other words, they preferred to be possessed on camera. As a result, the film features rarely seen images of spiritual possession, as well as an intimate look at the warmth and strength of the communities that form around the local peristyle.
The tableau portraits of the spirits are based on chromographs of Catholic saints that permeate the market places and are painted on the walls of every temple. The men and women in the film don costumes like the ones worn by the saints in the Catholic icons, showing the syncretic relationship between Catholicism and Vodou that dates back to the roots of the Vodou faith. In slave communities its practitioners would appropriate the icons and assign each to a ‘Lwa’, partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly to disguise their own religious practices that the Catholic French generally viewed as Satanic. These portraits feature heavily in the film and through them a non linear narrative begins to unfold.
It features of Damballa and Ayida Wedo, the serpent and the rainbow, the creators of the universe according to the Haitian story of creation. Achante parallels this creation story with the historical creation of Haiti as a free nation following the successful revolt by the slaves against the French colonists who brought them to the island in the 18th century. The film portrays the spirits Ezili Dantor and Papa Ogoun, the two ‘Lwa’ called by the slaves to help them in their battle against the French. Ezili Dantor is a fierce peasant mother, and Papa Ogoun a military leader and the god of both war and love. It portrays Baron Samedi, the god of sex, death and laughter, and possibly the most misunderstood and misrepresented of the Vodou Lwa and Mont Carmel, the Miraculous Virgin who lives in the waterfall at Saut D’eau. It portrays Ezili Freda, the flirtatious wife goddess of many Vodou practitioners, Ti Jean, one of the sons of Ezili Dantor, and Papa Legba, the overseer of all of mankind. It portrays the twins – Marassa – who symbolize abundance and regeneration. The film combines documentary images shot at feast days of the Miraculous Virgin, Mont Carmel, and of Ghede, the feast day of Baron Samedi and his wife Grand Brigitte, with images of the collision of life and worship for many Vodouisants.
The concept of spiritual possession, perceived by most other religious groups as being dark or demonic in nature, or naive, is in fact a key component of the Haitian identity that draws Vodou’s practitioners together. Its theatrical elements are directed towards connecting strangers and resolving conflicts among friends and family, as demonstrated by elaborate handshakes and expressions of love. The possessed person will often seek out and confront another person with whom they have conflict, and the spirit reaches out and resolves the conflict uninhibited by pride or willfulness. The film does little to openly identify or explain these practices, instead it invites us into the peristyle and treats us as familiars, so that we may see the participants as they interact with their families, friends and spiritual communities.
As there is little dialogue in the film, the score plays a huge part in communicating the overall feel. An original soundtrack, composed by Nick Zammuto of ‘the Books’, provides a hauntingly beautiful backdrop that weaves a dreamlike musical interpretation of events onscreen with threads of traditional song and spoken word. The objective is not to disseminate information about Vodou, nor to attempt to validate or demystify the practice of Vodou or its system of beliefs. Instead, Achante recreates the totally immersive and engaging atmosphere of the ecstatic and at times chaotic worship of Haitian Vodouisants.
This film aims to bring to our Haitian participants the opportunity to step before the lens as Saints or Lwa that they identify with, imbuing the icons with their own personal interpretations. The story will join pilgrims in Sodo on July 16 as they travel to the there to celebrate the Feast Day of Mont Carmel – a Catholic saint and Voudoo spirit who is said to live in the waterfall at the top of the hill. The falls are a sacred site for practitioners of Voudoo – or Voudooizan – and the Calvary Temple next to the Catholic Church further down the hill is where Catholics go to pray to the Virgin Mary, incarnated as Mont Carmel. One spirit or saint is shared by two faiths: Catholicism, and Voudoo. We will then join a local community as it celebrates the Fet Gede, a two-day festival in which the participants will straddle the boundary between this world and the one populated by the Gede Family of spirts. The Gede – guardians of the dead, keeper of ancestors, libidinous and hedonistic – have Bawon Samedi as their spiritual leader; this is his festival and he is manifest, both physically and spiritually, throughout the 48 hours dedicated to him and his family.
With a cast and crew sourced from the local communities that participated in the making of this film, Achantè will give Haitian people an opportunity to represent themselves and their faith in the way they choose, offering an alternative view of a vibrant and unique culture that is so often portrayed but seldom understood.