The Haitian goat Britis proves an excellent mute guide at the Grand Cimetière in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, squeezing through narrow passageways as he inquisitively scurries from crypt to crypt.
A young Haitian named Britis shot one of 2018’s most remarkable documentaries, but his stunning camerawork did not result in him joining any cinematographers guilds – such organisations tending to exclude four-legged members. Britis is a goat. In the film he visits and explores the Grand Cimetière of Port-au-Prince, Haiti – permanent home to many of his species as well as numerous humans, both dead and living.
Britis was fitted with a harness and a GoPro camera and was thus able to capture for posterity his wanderings through the rubble-strewn graveyard. His services were employed for just a single day of shooting by a trio of artists – Steevens Simeon, from Haiti, and a brace of Brazilians, Jefferson Kielwagen and Marcos Serafim – during the 5th ‘Ghetto Biennale’ in December 2017– a down-to-earth counterpart of the decidedly grand and relatively opulent Venice Biennale.
The resulting footage was then edited down into a fifteen-minute film entitled Gede Vizyon, which screened during 2018 at a scattering of exhibitions and small/medium film-festivals in the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Brazil, Israel, Serbia and Haiti. But it seems to have flown under the radar of the biggest and most prestigious documentary/experimental festivals.
This is surprising, given that Gede Vizyon‘s originality, its visual delights, and arresting balance between extreme simplicity and underlying complexity are sufficient to warrant inclusion in any serious list of the 2018’s most notable premieres of any length.
A word about the title – which is, like all of the «dialogue» heard in the film, Haitian Creole. The vizyon part is self-explanatory; gede is somewhat trickier, the gede (also known as Guédé or Ghede) being the spirits responsible for death and fertility in Haitian vodou (a.k.a. voodoo), and whose domains logically include burial places such as the sprawling hillside Grand Cimetière.
The gede dominate two of the film’s three audio elements: as well as the diegetic, live-recorded sound from the GoPro (which includes Britis’ occasional braying and the scrambling of his hooves on the rocky terrain), we hear incantations and poems performed by Jean-Daniel Lafontant, a houngan (vodou priest) from the Nah-Ri-Veh temple (which played host to one of the Biennale’s opening-night parties, reportedly an «epic night.»)
These are mixed with haunting hymns sung a capella by Evelyne Thelus, a.k.a. Mambo Jacqueline, herself a high priestess of the religion: «Legba is at the gate. Legba’s oath. It’s he who carries the flag that shields the spirits from the sun.»
Lafontant and Thelus’ vocal contributions weave a tantalising network of vodou references to prominent lwa – a.k.a. loa, a term for spirits to whom prayers are addressed. God himself – known as Bondye, a term deriving from the French Bon Dieu – delegates interactions with humans to his lwa, and never intercedes directly in mundane affairs. Goats often pop up in vodou lore and ritual; they are often used as sacrifices and their meat is eaten during particular feasts.
Goats often pop up in vodou lore and ritual; they are often used as sacrifices and their meat is eaten during particular feasts.
Britis was purchased from a Port-au-Prince market «although the cemetery is full of goats, we wanted to make sure we had at least one captured, so we could install the GoPro and let it run free again,» explains Serafim.
He was named after Jean-Simon Britis (aka Brutus), protective spirit of the graveyard. The latter is name checked in the film alongside the better-known likes of «the Baron» –i.e. Baron Samedi, head of the gede and a kind of lord of the dead.
The Baron is perhaps the most famous of all vodou entities: he even pops up as a seemingly immortal secondary villain in the 1973 James Bond caper Live and Let Die. Even at 1973 rates, of course, Gede Vizyon was made for a minute fraction of the 007 picture’s budget. It’s a typically inventive, shoestring-financed manifestation of the Ghetto Biennale – set up by the Atis Rezistans artists’ collective and co-founded by Cheshire-born Leah Gordon and Port-au-Prince native André Eugène.
Touring Le Grand Cimetière
Gede Vizyon‘s bare-bones aesthetic and genuinely collective origins (Brazilian/Haitian, artist/religionist, human/goat) is all of a piece with an irresistibly direct work which seeks communion and empathy with all of the denizens of the Cimetière – a necropolis whose population increased significantly after the earthquake that devastated much of the capital in January 2010.
Grand Cimetière is a necropolis whose population increased significantly after the earthquake that devastated much of the capital in January 2010.
Most of the solidly-built cemetery remained intact, and it became the not-so-temporary home for dozens of displaced families – and, understandably given the macabre surroundings, something of a hotbed of superstition – following a catastrophe that is reckoned to have destroyed a quarter of a million homes. All this in what was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
Seven years later, when Gede Vizyon was filmed, Haiti had yet to fully recover from the cataclysm; the cemetery remained (and remains) something of a hive of activity. Britis proves an excellent mute guide, squeezing through narrow passageways as he inquisitively scurries from crypt to crypt: humans generally dodge out of his way, some of them understandably taken aback by this camera-toting critter.
A fellow goat reclines in the sun: at one point our unseen protagonist stops to scratch his hide on a tangle of twigs. In the latter stages the camera becomes dislodged, and the film takes on a surreal upside-down quality; aeroplanes leave white contrails in the blue December sky. Britis, encumbered by his harness and wanting to find a bit of solitude away from folk who may well be thinking of goat stew for dinner, finally shakes himself free and is therefore briefly visible in the very closing seconds.
By this stage we’ve been granted privileged access to what has been a bewildering and informative «ride,» given an extra layer of intrigue and grandeur by Lafontant and Thelus. The film begins in media res, without introduction or explanation: the camera twitchily positioned (hand-held, we presume) somewhere around knee height, and then an allegro perambulation begins.
Indeed, apart from one tell-tale bray early on, it’s only about halfway through that even an attentive viewer will grasp who – or what – is doing the filming; for the final third, a furry ear is clearly visible in the lower right-hand part of the frame.
This isn’t the first time that a non-human «cameraperson» has helped to make a movie, of course – there was even a well-chronicled incident at Cannes (of all places) in 2011 when an opportunistic seagull made off with a GoPro and flew up to the city’s hilltop castle, resulting in a quite stunning 100-second «film.»
In the latter stages the camera becomes dislodged, and the film takes on a surreal upside-down quality.
But Gede Vizyon combines this radical approach with a sensitive immersion into folkloric cultural belief. It magnificently and indeed gracefully transcends what could have been a clumsy conceptual gimmick, using 21st-century technology to provide a vision of a labyrinthine environment – somehow out of time altogether – that no clumsy human could ever have effected without hircine assistance.
Sad coda. Writes Jefferson Kielwagen: «[after filming] we traded Britis with the Papa-Da, a Vodou priest and one of the artists of the Atis Resistanz community, for a couple of his sculptures. Weeks later, we learned that Britis had been sacrificed in a Vodou ritual and consumed by folks in the Atis Resistanz.» RIP Britis… but thanks to Gede Vizyon he now has a kind of cinematic immortality, at least.