Parky At the Pictures (11/11/2022)
(Reviews of Retrograde; and KANAVAL: A People's History of Haiti in Six Chapters)
Never let it be said that documentarist Matthew Heineman doesn't commit to projects. Either side of the remarkable Marie Colvin biopic, A Private War (2018), he has put himself at risk to examine the drug industry in Cartel Land (2015) and The Trade (2018), commend the courage of Syria's citizen journalists in City of Ghosts (2017), and demonstrate how one New York hospital coped with the outbreak of Covid-19 in The First Wave (2021). Now, he has pitched himself and fellow cinematographers Tim Grucza and Olivier Sarbil into the whirlwind in Retrograde to record the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and reveal its immediate consequences.
Eight months before President Joe Biden announced that he would be ending the United States's 20-year involvement in Afghanistan, Heineman visited Camp Shorab in Helmand Province. A dozen Green Berets have arrived to begin a training programme with the 15,000 troops under the command of General Sami Sadat (who is the son of a war hero). Leading the mission is Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Chaney, but we don't learn the names of those teaching the Afghan army such basics as avoiding unnecessary deaths because victims are viewed as martyrs to be avenged.
After Sadat organises emergency medical treatment for six Afghan soldiers caught in a helicopter ambush, the Americans launch a drone reprisal on a Taliban nest and there are gasps as a missile takes out a motorcyclist and his passenger. Despite Sadat's insistence that the US presence is a good thing for his country, Biden announces a 1 May starting date for America's exit and the Green Berets are detailed to switch from training to the retrograde destruction of all documents and any equipment or weaponry that could benefit the enemy.
Breaking the news to the Afghans with a heavy heart, the Berets thank them for their help and apologise for leaving them at the mercy of a foe who will inevitably target them for having collaborated with the invader. As Sadat's teams monitor Taliban activity in the region, the Berets supervise bonfires and controlled explosions, while lamenting that they are being forced to evacuate while there is still a job to be done. Toking on a fat cigar, one officer jokes with a colleague that he was a babe in arms when the conflict began in the wake of 9/11 and shrugs that decisions are made on available information and not hindsight.
Flags are swapped, hugs are exchanged. Bags are packed and cargo planes are loaded. By June 2021, Sadat is left to make the best of things, with deep regret on the part of the Green Berets who know how many have perished in securing a position that everyone knows is precarious at best. But it soon becomes clear that the Taliban has simply been biding its time and swiftly begins picking off outposts.
Sadat is forced to watch as chopper and drone missions miss their targets and news keeps coming in of lost bases and dead comrades. Visiting casualties, Sadat hears of leaders on hashish and he becomes increasingly careworn, as the Taliban advance continues towards the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah. Defeat here would leave Kabul open and Sadat is determined to hold firm, as Taliban recruitment grows and his own numbers start to dwindle.
Based in the governor's compound, he attempts to rally his commanders, but they feel abandoned and morale is low. Supply chains are also starting to break down and few share Sadat's optimism, with assistant Khalid trying to show him phone footage of failed rearguards that he simply doesn't want to see. When he ventures out to the front line, he sees chaos and confusion, as well as a growing sense of despair and fear that the government will fall and that the Taliban will not only re-impose their strict laws, but also undertake reprisals.
Despite pleas for ammunition, Sadat is left powerless and the cameras fix on apprehensive faces. Captions inform us that the city fell on 13 August and that Kabul was captured two days later. As we see Taliban leaders raving about Jewish conspiracies, Sadat speaks from exile in London after having managed to get his family and key personnel out of Afghanistan. But, as we see from the footage, thousands more are left to their fate and Sadat is dismayed that he could do no more. Heineman's crew remains at Kabul Airport to witness those who worked with the Allies trying to get out and the 3000 US troops Biden sent back doing their best to keep order.
Once again, the cameras alight on faces. But they are women and children and the air of despondency is palpable. The contrast between those on planes and those on the ground is harrowing. A caption reports that, the following day, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 13 US service personnel and 170 Afghans. During the course of the two-decade operation, approximately 6300 Americans and 170,000 Afghans lost their lives.
Although this often feels similar to Shinwar Kamal and Hogir Hirori's The Deminer (2017), Sami Sadat is a good deal more fortunate than bomb disposal specialist Fakir Berwari, as he managed to get out of his hellhole alive. He is currently organising a resistance movement to the Taliban and it would be fascinating to re-encounter him in a future documentary. One is left wondering, however, how long it will be before he sets foot once again on home soil.
Everything that Sadat experienced in this account was, of course, shared by Heineman and his crew. Their courage in recording events is humbling and one can only speculate how they managed to achieve so many visually and emotionally striking compositions in the face of evident danger. For all the polish of the imagery, Heineman and fellow editors Pablo Garza and Grace Zahrah resist reportagistic sensationalism in establishing a rhythm predicated by how circumstances prevent Sadat from being the man of action he clearly wants to be. If he's not in the back of vehicles, he's in operations or conference rooms. He also spends a lot of time pacing on the phone, as he tries to persuade his political masters to provide him with the means to defend the nation. Yet, we never get a proper insight into what he is really thinking or feeling.
Equally telling is the frustration felt by the Green Berets, who have been left by Washington to break bad news before beating a hasty retreat. Judging from the expressions in a briefing room where orders come into conflict with conscience, the majority feel they have left the Afghans down because they know they are in no state to resist a committed force like the Taliban. As this is a vérité study, there's no place for any comment on the hasty return to supervise the airlift or how the American disengagement went down with ordinary citizens. But Heineman uses H. Scott Salinas's score to reinforce the tone of sequences, as pride and hope are caught in the crosshairs of an unseen enemy.
KANAVAL: A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF HAITI IN SIX CHAPTERS.
In 1995, Leah Gordon started taking monochrome photographs of the carnival in Haiti. Now, she has joined with Eddie Hutton Mills to make the documentary, Kanaval: A People's History of Haiti in Six Chapters. Drawing on a range of archive materials, as well as interviews with residents of the southern port city of Jacmel, this is a dazzling insight into how the more westerly side of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola copes with its colonialist past.
Carnival has been celebrated in Haiti for over 200 years, with the one held in Jacmel being considered more spiritual and mystical than others. Troupes like Zèl Maturin (Wings of Maturin), Atibruno, and Lanse Kòd (Rope Throwers) design masks and costumes to re-enact key moments in history so that people are reminded of their heritage.
Chapter One, `Ayiti, Land of Mountains', opens with the Endyen (Indians) troupe performing a traditional dance as we see an old feature clip showing Christopher Columbus striking land on 5 December 1492. An artist claims that the Genoan merely followed Black traders heading for the island. Rather than coming in peace, however, the Spanish committed an act of genocide against the Taino people.
They also imported slaves from Africa and a speaker states that 75% of France's wealth came from the plantations after Louis XIV took control of the westermost part of the island in 1697 and renamed it Saint-Domingue. The Yahweh troupe recall the way in which slaves were whipped while working, eating, and sleeping. Yet, while it's important for carnival to keep the past alive, it's also a time for enjoyment and for street vendors to make some money.
Lanse Kòd play a key role in recreating the slave uprising at Bwa Kayman. In Chapter Two, `The Black Revolution', we learn how
Toussaint L'Ouverture was inspired by news of the French Revolution to rebel against the overlords. He was arrested on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and taken to Europe, but Jean-Jacques Dessalines continued the fight and monochrome film clips are cross-cut with street performance to convey the potency of the unleashing of energy.
In Chapter Three, `The Birth of a Black Nation', we watch Troupe Zonbi showing how mystical power was tapped to drive out the French of the newly named Haiti in 1804. It's explained that zombies were a symbol of the enslaved people and that the culture that built up around them represented a determination to resist future subjugation. Some colonial traditions were retained, however, as a member of Troupe Trese Riban (Braiding Ribbons) recalls in showing how maypole dancing is one of the few ways in which women can get involved with carnival.
In order to forge a new identity, Haitians created the Kreyol language to bind the different African communities. This also prompted the forging of a distinctive culture, as we see in Chapter Four, `Vodou, Soul of the Nation'. Troupe Bann Djabb (The Devil's Band) perform to drums in a cemetery. But, as Vodou was behind the Slaves' Revolt, the colonialists demonised the religion and we see clips from a silent film of a white woman being abducted by a Black man in a trance.
Another reason for Haiti being slow to develop was the price France demanded for its liberation. In Chapter Five, `The Price of Freedom', we see Troupe Pote Sèkèy (The Coffin Carriers) performing a dance with a coffin that represents the reparation of 150 million francs that France demanded in 1825. In today's money, this would be $20 billion and it remained a burden until 1947, as funds were diverted away from infrastructure projects. As a consequence, Haiti remained impoverished and underdeveloped and Troupe Pay Bannan (Plantain Leaves) perform in leaf costumes to remember the hunger that people have endured.
Each carnival, artist André Eugène has his hair shaved to resemble Charlemagne Péralte, while Troupe Ti Milité (Little Military) re-enact the resistance to the US invasion of 1915. This was an unprovoked attack that cost the lives of thousands, as forced labour was reintroduced. Péralte was executed for leading the Cacos rebellion, but this finally succeeded in forcing the Americans to leave in 1934. The institutions they left behind were corrupt and an invidious presence remains.
In Chapter Six, `The Uprooting', we meet Lauture Joseph Joissaint from Troupe Chaloska (Charles Oscar). who needs cows' teeth for his costume. Charles Oscar Etienne was a military leader in 1915 and Joissaint's father started commemorating him after François Duvalier took power in 1957. Known as `Papa Doc', he became increasingly dictatorial and relied on the brutal Tontons Macoute private army to oppress the people. Chaloska had latitude to speak out during carnival, but the regime was unabashed, with Duvalier handing power to his son, Jean-Claude, who was known as `Baby Doc'. However, he was overthrown in 1986, after a lavish televised wedding upset the public.
We meet Dieuli Laurent from Troupe Bounda pa Bounda (Cheek By Arse), who has been dragging up as a big-bottomed woman since 1983. A montage follows of the various troupes performing and archive shots of revellers dancing in the streets. A closing shot shows the members of Lanse Kòd rushing into the sea to wash off their black paint. Another year has gone, but they will all be back to do it again and keep the past a vital part of the Haitian present.
Anything bearing the BBC's Arena imprint is bound to be worth watching. Yet, while it provides a flavour of carnival and its significance to an embattled people, this audiovisual treat frustratingly stints on historical detail. Indeed, such is the lack of context that those entranced by the glorious enactments will have to scurry home and get Googling to learn more about the national heroes mentioned in the film.
Naturally, this isn't supposed to be a history lesson. But it only runs for 76 minutes and a little more time might have been spent on overlooked characters like Jean-Pierre Boyer, Michel Domingue, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Something on Pre-Colombian times might also have been interesting, as well as a deeper reflection on the role and the status of women in Haitian history. Nevertheless, Joel Honeywell's vibrant photography is rhythmically assembled by Xanna Ward Dixon to the songs performed by the Sons of Kemet group. The closing credits reference Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn! (1969) and Jonathan Demme's Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) as sources, but it would be nice to know where the 1492 clips came from - perhaps Gérard Bourgeois's Christophe Colomb (1916) or Márton Garas's Christoph Columbus (1923)? - and the name of the Vodou silent which evidently predates Victor Halpern's White Zombie (1932).