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TIFF Interview: Henri Pardo Explains the Magic Realism of ‘Kanaval’

Following films like Kite Zo A and Mountains, Henri Pardo adds another notable Haitian-themed film to the festival circuit with the world premiere of his striking drama Kanaval. Set in the mid-1970s, it follows a young boy who is forced to leave his native Haiti and navigate the strange new world of Canada with his distraught mother. Ahead of the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Awards Radar sat with Pardo to discuss the film’s blend of familiar coming of age themes and Haitian surrealism.

Shane Slater: What inspired this film? Was it based on personal experience?

Henri Pardo: I used family experience to write this character. It was mostly about writing that feeling of landing on another planet when we get here, you know? We’re not supposed to be here, yet we are and what’s noticed is us having problems adapting and stuff like that. And we are always put in a peripheral type of role.

So I wanted to center it around this child that really notices the real things that we notice right now. We’re on another planet and it’s a problem, you know? We need to get back on our planet. And it’s funny, I was talking about it with my mom. She saw the film and she told me, “Oh, they always say that we have problems adapting. But they never realized that we don’t want to be here. We want to be back home.” For political refugees, climate refugees or even sexual refugees, we want to be where we’re born, with our families, roots, our culture. I wanted to write about that. So writing through the eyes of a child was beautiful for that. So I use certain things that I went through with my brothers, my sisters, and my mom. But it’s not autobiographical.

SS: I found it really interesting that the son is intuitively suspicious of the White people around him, through his imaginary friend Kana, as opposed to being warned by his mom. Can you talk about this choice?

HP: Yeah, I think as kids we know things. My son is 23 right now. And I had to have the talk with him when he was about 11, I think. Sat him down, and I told him, “You’ve got to be careful with cops.” He was quiet and he listened. But I saw in his eyes that he was relieved that I can affirm what he saw already. So they know all this stuff. But we sometimes ignore them and just don’t tell them the truth. But they know everything. And they go even further.

In Rico’s case, I’m sure without knowing it, he sees the colonizers. And that’s why Kana is there. He represents those first Africans that just rip the chains off and just went off in the mountains to be free. They didn’t run off, they just decided to survive and thrive up in the hills. And that’s what formed the revolution, right? When they came back down, they were organized and they just got rid of all the French colonizers. So I’m sure that Rico instinctively, because he knows his Haitian culture is also to say, “No, this is bad. And other white people are good.”

SS: I love that you really leaned into the spiritual aspects of Haitian culture, especially considering the negative perceptions of Haitian culture and vodoo especially. What were some of the ideas and references that went into the visuals?

HP: There’s a few things in what you just said. I think for the latter part – perception of Haiti right now and even for the past 50 years – I am very happy to be able to tell the story and say, “You guys think this, but there are other Haitis.” There is our Haiti, the way we see it, the way we live it. Voodoo was demonized by Americans, by colonizers, by the church. And that’s not who we are, you know? So personally, it’s great to just dive back into my culture. It’s really like a personal thing.

So what I’ve tried to do, to answer the first part of your question regarding how do we do this, I told my crew – which was Mexican, Quebecois, Haitian, Dominican – let’s be Haitians. And this is how they rule. This is how they rock, right? They went up the mountains, they had a voodoo ceremony, they got together, they took everything they could on the island, the formed our language, our culture, our religion, they came back down, and they were independent, out of nothing.

This is a low budget film, so I don’t want to hear anybody complaining about we don’t have. Let’s get it done. If it’s supposed to be sunny, and it rains, we don’t have a choice. Let’s make art, right? And art is not something that’s precise. We’re artisans, we’re trying to figure stuff out, and sometimes it will work. And sometimes it won’t. The most important thing is that we’re community, we’re a family, and we have to stick up for one another. So it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the village just trying to thrive and be well.

So it was really based on being anchored in the moment and trying to find magic realism. And that’s it, just shooting every scene in a realistic way, but with that twinkle in our eye of hope, of love, of cosmology, of ancestors around us, and just feel them and believe, you know?

SS: Your lead actor is so good. Did he have any personal connection to Haiti? How did you cast him?

HP: We found Rayan Dieudonné through luck. No, luck doesn’t exist! Luck and opportunities don’t exist. It’s just hard work. We’ve got a beautiful community of filmmakers in Montreal. So we reached out and oddly enough, he had just arrived. He had been in Montreal for three years. He’s Haitian, and he had to leave. And he did many countries, crossing borders. I didn’t know all that stuff. I auditioned the kid and he had something but it was really shy. And then something happened in the second audition. A friend of mine told me a joke that kids don’t get, but I saw in his eyes that he caught it. He got the joke. So okay, this kid’s smart. So I used that and he opened up. Every day he was opening up, he was learning the craft.

He was still this child. It was a whole village taking care of him. He wasn’t a star. He was having fun and that’s what I wanted. He’s a friend. He’s a wonderful human being. And he had that wisdom also, because of his past lives. I think sometimes as Afro descendants we’re denied to just go deeper. We’re allowed to just be urban or whatever, right? But on this crew, with this guy, we were really ourselves.

SS: In Haiti, women are considered the pillars of society. But you’re almost subverting that with this character through her vulnerability and trauma. How did you approach that character and decide to portray her in this way?

HP: With a lot of worry and care. Being a cis man writing a woman that is traumatized, I find it easy to to do bad things to women, you know? So I found myself in that situation where, “Oh God, I’m gonna traumatize her and this and that, and I’m doing it again, I’m repeating that cycle.” How to get rid of that?

So, what I’ve decided to do is, first of all, talk with the actor to make sure that she felt independent and solid with her role, and acknowledge the fact that this film is seen through the eyes of her son. So I’m putting the character in that situation where there’s a lot of love and need and worry and stuff like that, but he’s not idolizing her. He’s not transforming her. She has to do her things to adapt to take care of the family, that he’ll never understand, that I understand now. You know, it takes time. But I wanted to respect that woman character a lot, and I hope it works out. But it was a challenge.

SS: The film is premiering at TIFF and explores different cultures. Are you expecting a different interpretation from a Haitian audience versus North American audiences?

HP: Oh, definitely. And that’s how it was formed. Often people say, “Well, we won’t understand that.” That’s not my problem. Like, when I watch a film about vikings, I gotta figure it out. And I’ve got nothing that helps me out, right?And actually, I want Westerners to feel like we feel when we land here. Like, what is going on? But through the carnival, through arriving, I think they’ll be witness to love and feel there’s certain things I don’t understand, but it’s my responsibility to do my homework, and to learn more about the culture.

Regarding the Haitian community, I’m nervous! This is for them. This is for my mom. So that brings it more close. And I want my mom to appreciate my work. This is dedicated to her incredible strength, and perseverance and culture. And she’s a militant also. She fought for her people. For the Haitians, it’s sort of like, here’s a Haiti that we never talked about. Here’s how we’re beautiful and strong and rich, and all that. So I hope they enjoy it. This is not Haiti. That’s impossible. It’s too complex. This is a small excerpt of what it was, through the eyes of a child. So I hope they appreciate it.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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