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Observed Online Essays Reviews

Douvan Jou Ka Leve and Telling Stories About Black Women

This piece originally appeared in the 2018 BlackStar Film Festival Catalogue.

by Zoé Samudzi

Still from Douvan Jou Ka Levé (2017). Dir. by Gessica Généus.

Douvan Jou Ka Leve (“The Sun Will Rise”) begins by introducing the inextricability of enslavement with contemporary Haitian religiosities.

The narrator describes Catholicism’s act of binding the Black Haitian subject to a perpetual condition of mental servitude through the equation of religious practice with a worship of and supplication before Whiteness. In French, she says: “Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean, yet I have rarely seen a people pray as much.” She continues: “So what are we doing wrong? How long will we have to pay? What is this debt that we need to reimburse?”. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman writes a three-word declarative of the postcolonial Afro-diasporic condition: “Emancipation instituted indebtedness.” And so the never-ending streams of prayer become articulations of the debt Haiti owes for endeavoring to be free. All of the tragedies that have befallen the nation since her independence—repeated natural disaster, economic exploitation, western meddling in political affairs—are punishments for that freedom.

It is against this backdrop, one contoured by the tensions between Catholicism, Protestantism and Vodou as modalities for interpreting and alleviating suffering, that Gessica Généus explores her mother’s mental illness and its (gendered) cultural interpretations. To some, mental illness isn’t entirely unrelated to the Bois Caïman Vodou ceremony that occurred on the eve of the 1791 Haitian Revolution. Many Haitians interpret that ceremony as ancestral power facilitating a strength for the fight for freedom, while others, notably Haitian evangelists and Protestants, interpret the ceremony as a pact with the devil that has cursed Haiti ever since. The “curse” is a culturally resonant perception of mental illness that drives and justifies stigma and mistreatment in a country steeped in competing religiosities, and Généus navigates the landscape as means of better finding and understanding her mother’s own battles.

Still from Douvan Jou Ka Levé (2017). Dir. by Gessica Généus.

But what is the difference between religious glossolalia and unintelligible speech from mania or other mental unrest? How can one simultaneously positively understand a channeling of religious energy while speaking in tongues but also deny the potential reality of the same thing occurring within someone marked as “crazy” or “cursed”?

It is not so often that Haitian women are given the opportunity to present stories—fictional, narrative, or documentary—of their island that are not forced to remain within ghettoized “third world” cinematic spaces to which these stories are so often relegated by dominant canons (Guetty Felin’s magical realist Ayiti Mon Amour, also comes to mind). Black women have little opportunity for the kind of vulnerability that Généus offers in a story about herself and her people through her mother, and a historical-spiritual nexus that scaffolds popular attitudes about both mental wellness and the contemporary Haitian condition. Black women have stories to tell; the stories that we tell are urgent, generous, tender, intimate, layered. When our stories are acknowledged, we are reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s query about the subaltern’s capacity to speak. She/we can speak, and she speaks/we speak loudly and frequently and with clarity! But her voice is/our voices are muzzled. We are not heard in or as ourselves, and our stories are captured and consumed/cannibalized and inserted into specialized spaces peripheral to the film canon. We make “Black film” and we tell “Black women’s stories,” but often are unrecognized for our mastery of storytelling or cinematic capability outside of celebratory Black film spaces forged out of racist and objectifying muck.

Still from Douvan Jou Ka Levé (2017). Dir. by Gessica Généus.

But “mastery” connotes a deservingness to be marked as canonical, and it entails a work that commands itself over the subjects it captures or portrays. Attributions of mastery skip Black womanhood and rarely exist outside of Whiteness and/or masculinism because they connote dominion and domination. Mastery is the template against which all other subjective portrayals are contrasted and evaluated; it is both epoch-making and definitive, whereas Black women’s work and Black women as subjects of creative work are denied such agency. Demands made on Black women’s cultural production shares a burial plot with the increasingly popular progressive refrain that “Black women will save us!” which denies a diversity of thought and experience to Black womanhood. In Arts.Black, Kareem Reid writes that:

Contemporary black women artists are still expected to perform the politics of their work as much with their bodies and self-image as accessible, relatable, representative, and literal models of a visible, public, and fashionable concoction of feminist activism in order to explain the context of the work. Black women know how exhausting, seductive, and deadly it is to be constantly made and unmade by hegemonies of beauty. When there is an end to an essential black subject, it also means there is an end to an essential black artist or director or writer or curator or muse or cultural practitioner.

While it might seem paradoxical, refusing Black womanhood as a subject that can be singularly or narrowly defined fails to allow for a more robust recognition and assertion of Black women’s lives, stories, and humanity. We can do any one of a number of things while watching movies created by or featuring Black women: we might compare them to one another in an attempt to delineate a “legitimate” story from an illegitimate one (because Black womanhood is constantly forced into intramural competition), or we might place films into extended dialogue with one another in service of a dynamic and insurgent storytelling project. Each of these films conveys a different element of Black womanhood, and in doing so, enables us to cultivate more nuanced understandings of identity and also materiality through space and time.

Creating and articulating Black womanhood as a boundless physical and metaphysical condition is to imagine an alternative canon, a counter-hegemony rooted in the worldview of the marginal and peripheral. In this canon, portrayals of the traumatic are as important as and no more definitive or essential than the frivolous—catastrophe is not consumed in pornographic excess, and humor is not dismissed as trivial or inauthentic. A politic of refusal is central to cultivating these cinematic understandings of Black womanhood because refusal is both an act of renunciation and generation: we cannot begin to imagine new and formulate new worlds until we are clear in what we refuse. Renunciation is the preface to a praxis of Black feminist world-building, and it is a reckoning with a strategic use of identity politics that orients us towards a notion of freedom (here, freedom entails a practice of Black women’s story-telling/telling stories of and about Black women without being forced to conform to objectifying demands or constraint). This refusal illuminates a fugitive line of flight, per ancestor and Soledad Brother George Jackson, and is always immediately a counterattack: it is a retreat or escape so that we might be better poised to strike in some near or distant future.