The fantasy genre, whether in literature or film, has been known to be severely lacking in cultural diversity representation on mainstream platforms. But Black and other diverse creative voices do exist. Hands down, my new favourite fantasy-themed film is Haitian-Canadian director Henri Pardo's feature Kanaval, which premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

As a Haitian-Canadian who moved to cold and wintery Quebec with my parents as a 3-year-old in the mid-1970s, this story spoke to me directly and profoundly. I could see myself in the young protagonist—Rico (superbly played by Rayan Dieudonné). The story of Kanaval is set in 1975 Haiti, which was ruled under the iron fist of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Kanaval (the Creole word for Carnival) takes us on a journey through the wide-eyed perspective of a Haitian child navigating through the joys and distress of life. Written from a place of resilience and power, the all-too-familiar narratives of Black trauma are replaced in the film by Rico's sense of wonderment as he tackles a harsh world.

When his schoolteacher mother, Erzulie (Penande Estime), asks him to stay home to avoid danger, young Rico slips out to experience the carnival's colours, sounds, and excitement. The carnival scenes are breathtaking. We're really taken on a visually stimulating and surrealist journey from the perspective of a child's vivid imagination.

Left to right: Henri Pardo, Penande Estime, Rayan Dieudonné, Hana Sofia Lopez and Jean Jean
Photo: TIFF
Photo: TIFF
Photo: TIFF
Photo: TIFF
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When he returns to their home in a small port town, he witnesses a traumatic event. His very pregnant mother had been tied up, intimidated and beaten by a group of henchmen known as Tontons Macoutes, who accused her of harbouring communist ideology.

Following this harrowing experience, the mother and son duo fled Haiti to ultimately find refuge in a small town in Quebec. They were warmly welcomed by a childless Quebecois couple. But for Rico, it was like landing on another planet. It was the dead of winter; everything looked and felt different. Moreover, his mother, Erzulie, had lost her unborn child, and her psychological ordeal had created a distance between them.

A new world of fantasy was Rico's way of dealing with everything. He created an imaginary friend named Kana. Their conversations included some sharp and witty commentary in response to Rico's experiences with racism in the small town and other challenges he faced.

 Pardo wanted to convey the message in his film that Rico could recognize the colonizer mentality when confronted by it. Through his imaginary friend, he clung to his identity and culture. The beauty and value of his authentic cultural roots were the north star in navigating this hostile new world.

As part of TIFF, Kanaval won the Amplify Voices Award for Best Film and received an honourable mention from the Best Canadian Film jury.


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