November 12, 2008
The White Darkness (2002)
As one of the first places where the Europeans began the colonization of the Americas, what would later be known as Haiti received a vast influence of the many cultures that arrived after Columbus. The main influence came from the African slaves that were brought to the island when Haiti became a French colony, and since the colony had continuous arrivals of Afrinca-born people, the African roots remained strong. Just like what happened in Brazil and New Orleans, the African religions got fused with elements of French catholicism, and the result of this syncretism was Vodou, Haiti's very own tradition of the ancestral African religions. "The White Darkness" is a documentary about this fascinating faith that has survived to this day in Haiti as a major religion that plays an important role in Haitian society.
Directed by Richard Stanley, "The White Darkness" is a journey through Vodou with their practitioners as guides. Stanley interviews real followers of the Vodou faith and lets them do the explanations on what their religion is and what isn't. Unlike other documentaries, there is no narration here, and it's basically the images and the interviews what do the talking, allowing a real, objective and unbiased point of view about the religion. The documentary focuses on the modern Vodou religion, its ties to its African past, and its importance in modern Haiti. Finally, the relations of Vodou practitioners with other religions are explored, as well as the negative views that Christian missionaries have about the native Haitian faith, and the political impact this views played during the island occupation by foreign (mainly U.S.) peacekeeping forces.
"The White Darkness" is filled with very interesting footage of actual Vodou rites, that show the fervor of the Vodou followers and the roots of the religion as the result of the mixture of cultures. Some images may be shocking (real animal sacrifices and ecstatic dances are part of Vodoun) to Western audiences, but "The White Darkness" treats its subject with a lot of respect and doesn't attempt to be sensationalist about it. It is actually this respect for Vodoun what makes the documentary an interesting work, as by letting the actual practitioners of Vodoun religion (including healers, musicians and Vodoun priests) explain their beliefs, the movie not only achieves to give deep insight on the Vodoun religion, but also a very warm and human feeling, as the movie takes away every rumor and misconception about the religion and shows it as what it is: a powerful display of human faith not very different than better known religions.
Director Richard Stanley really did a great job at putting together "The White Darkness", as not only the movie really shows his commitment to the subject, but also his talent to give it a consistent narrative. Divided in short segments tied by a common theme, the interviews are very clear, and Stanley shows an excellent use of images to tell their message. Cinematographer Immo Horn, who has been Stanley's frequent collaborator since his debut in "Voice of the Moon", shows once again his remarkable work behind the camera with wonderful images that bring the spirit of Haiti and its people alive. His camera captures the amazing beauty of the country and its people, as well as the spirit of its culture, really bringing the whole feeling of their faith to the screen. The excellent score by Simon Boswell is the icing of the cake and Stanley uses this elements to create a haunting and beautiful portrait of a religion that has its roots in one of the oldest traditions of the world. It's truly an outstanding work that show the talent and versatility of Stanley (who is probably better known for his excellent horror film "Dust Devil") behind the camera.
Overall the movie is a remarkable documentary about an interesting, and rarely discussed topic. While it could have benefited of a longer runtime, Richard Stanley makes the most of his material and offers an unbiased and objective portrait of an often misunderstood religion. The very refreshing human focus that "The White Darkness" takes on its subject definitely sets it apart from other documentaries, as it avoids paternalist or condescending attitudes in favor of an open and unbiased take on the Haitian spirituality. As Richard Stanley's film offers a look on Vodoun from the point of view of its practitioners, "The White Darkness" is an invaluable movie for sociologists and in general those interested in discovering more about the mysteries of this ancient religion. A really fascinating film.
Buy "The White Darkness" (2002)