Saturday, September 7, 2019

ZOMBI CHILD: TIFF 2019 HIGHLIGHT #2


Stories about Haiti & voodoo from the perspective of a (white) French filmmaker can be touchy for a few reasons. It can come off a little (unintentionally) insulting & insensitive due to a lack of deep knowledge of Haitian culture (I’m trying my best not to use the term “problematic”). Voodoo on film is the kind of thing that a lot of filmmakers show as “cool” & mysterious and it just kind of stops there when so much more than casting spells.
It’s also a little peculiar that the most popular/known films to are set in Haiti/the Caribbean are made by white people. To date, some of the most prominent films on the subject of Haiti and/or voodoo have been made by white filmmakers like Maya Deren (The Living Gods Of Haiti), Jacques Tourneur (I Walked With A Zombie) and Wes Craven (The Serpent And The Rainbow). No matter how you cut it - it’s kind of strange (and a little crazy) that white filmmakers are the first names to pop up on the subject of Black culture. I feel any filmmaker should be able to make any movie on any subject they want but the representation of Haiti on the big screen has never sat well with me.

Bertrand Bonello’s latest film Zombi Child borrows from all the aforementioned movies. It’s 1/3 Maya Deren’s artistic (and respectful) exploration of Haitian culture from the perspective of a white outsider. It’s 1/3 Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (all of the Zombie scene scenes in Zombi Child look like they came straight out of Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie), and the last 1/3 of Zombi Child is an entertaining thriller in the vein of The Serpent And The Rainbow where we see the protagonist delve too deep in to the world of voodoo.

Shades of Maya Deren...
Living Gods Of Haiti / Zombi Child


Jacques Tourneur’s possible influence...
I Walked With A Zombie /Zombi Child


Another reason stories of Haiti and/or voodoo told from the perspective of an outsider can be worrisome is that things like that can sometimes delve in to the “magical negro” trope.

For those of you unfamiliar with what a magical negro is, allow me to explain...

Basically, a magical negro is a mystical Black character that has unexplained powers that they, for whatever reason, use to help random (sometimes entitled & unworthy) white characters that they hardly know (this actually does happen in Bonello’s Zombi Child to some extent). Classic examples of the magical negro would be Will Smith in The Legend Of Bagger Vance, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile or damn near 25% of Morgan Freeman’s filmography.


Zombi Child is an interesting film. I know “interesting” is the last thing anyone wants their work to be labeled as but in this case I mean it as a compliment because this is the kind of movie that has a lot to unpack even if it isn’t totally successful. Sometimes those are the best movies to dissect.
Zombi Child plays out like 2 different stories (each with its own set of layers ranging from slavery to sexuality) that eventually meet up in a ven diagram-like intersection.
One story follows a Haitian man-turned Zombie slave in 1960’s Haiti. The other story centers on his granddaughter (Melissa) in present-day France at an all-white/all-girls catholic school (she appears to be the only black student at the school). Eventually, one of Melissa’s classmates (Fanny) learns of Melissa’s connection to voodoo and attempts use it to cast a spell on someone for selfish/personal reasons. As you can imagine, the results turn out to be more than she bargained for. Zombi Child isn’t exactly a horror film but rather a slow- burn psychological thriller.

My biggest “issue” with this movie is that while Haitian culture is shown with respect & care (all the scenes shot in Haiti are beautiful), the voodoo in the film is used for pretty silly reasons in my opinion (I don’t want to spoil anything).

So while this movie teeters the line between respectful & (unintentionally) disrespectful, it’s still something I recommend folks see simply for the conversation that it’ll bring up afterwards (this is also new territory for Bertrand Bonello who continues to broaden his subject matter with each film).

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