The heartbeat of a people

by Louise Diamond and Lyn Parker

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 20-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Blackness. A scream — of fury, of pain, of power. A woman's face slowly emerging out of the darkness — black-skinned, dark-eyed, voice aching with her impassioned song:

"Simparele-e-e…, simparele-e-e…"
("If I don't scream, I'll choke…")

An unseen chorus of male and female voices join hers. She faces the camera as lights illuminate her face. Her rich voice filled with pride, she invokes the spirit of her people — the Haitians — and their centuries of struggle for freedom and revolution. She is Marthe Jean-Claude, narrator and participant in a dramatic re-enactment of Haitian history. The Haitians who perform with her are members of the Amateur Theater Group of the Union of Haitians Living in Cuba. The interpretive dance and poetic narrative form the core of this thirty-minute film of explosive intensity made in Cuba in 1974. Its director is the Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solás, best known in this country for the three-part feature LUCÍA (1968).

SIMPARELE is history interpreted through people's art. The film synthesizes the primary forms through which the Haitian people have expressed themselves in the centuries since the island's colonization by the French and the massive importation of African slaves to fuel its plantation economy. It is a composite of dance, theatrical tableaux, poetry, song, folk painting, legend and religious ritual. SIMPARELE acknowledges the powerful role which Afro-Haitian culture has played in these people's political struggle as both repository for people's history and the raw material from which that history can be reconstructed and transformed.

Voodoo, animal sacrifice, and a complex pantheon of deities are important components of that cultural tradition. Many film audiences, North American and Cuban alike, might question why a political film from a revolutionary country would deal with systems of belief which are easily dismissed as "cults" and "superstitions." Recognizing the importance in Haitian daily life and political struggle of the magico-religious system which still prevails among the Haitian people, Solás chooses to put special emphasis on this important element.

One of the film's most powerful segments is the re-enactment of a vodun ceremony and mass gathering of rebels led by an escaped slave called Boukman. The aim of the impressive ceremony was to encourage greater unity among the rebels of the region during that night of August 14, 1791. In the midst of thunder and lightning, an old black woman appears to the crowd, chanting and dancing wildly and brandishing a huge cutlass over her head. When she finally plunges the sword into the throat of a black hog, the crowd, enthralled, swear to execute Boukman's orders. As conventional histories recount:

"Six days later, led by Boukman, the slaves of the Turpin plantation near Cape Français indiscriminately massacred every white man, woman or child upon whom they could lay their hands. They inaugurated a general insurrection, and within a few weeks the magnificent plantations of the Plaine-du-Nord were in ruins and the white population either murdered or cooped up in larger towns." [1]

The shock of viewing this ritual sacrifice confirms that Solás has abandoned history as written by the rulers in order to confront the viewer with the visceral experience of history for the ruled.

Vodun began with the arrival of slaves at St. Domingue (the French name for the island) in the second half of the 17th century. Its sources are African ritual, Catholicism, and European witchcraft. Many Haitian leaders used these rites to catalyze slave rebellions and the struggle for independence from the French. Toussaint L'ouverture, who led the right for and proclaimed Haitian independence on January 1, 1604, used vodun as a means for uniting the slaves. Dessalines, another leader in the war for independence and Emperor from 1804 to 1806, boasted of his African ancestry but ruthlessly suppressed the cults. King Christophe, who ruled in the north until 1820, publicly stated his opposition to such practices, but privately consulted a houngan (vodun priest) about his own affairs. When the film first evokes these important historical figures, they represent hope for the insurgents, but that hope turns to despair as they each become agents of repression and violence. These leaders — and their foreign counterparts as well — repressed vodun practices after coming to power, fearing that the force which unified the slaves against their masters might produce the same results against their own domination of the people.

The film intercuts still photographs and statistics with emotionally intense dramatizations of historical events. The ritual sacrifice of the hog, for example, is intercut with statistics on the twentieth-century material reality under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier: 60% unemployment, 260 out of every 1000 Haitians dying of starvation, an average life expectancy of thirty years. The implication of this technique is that there is a dialectical relationship between the formation of a people's culture and the political and economic climate in which it develops. Popular cultural expression cannot be separated from the objective conditions of imposed underdevelopment.

In SIMPARELE, Haitian people's culture is shown to be part of the political struggle against imperialism: slavery and colonialism under the French, neo-colonialism under the Americans, and political repression by the privileged classes from within. The film contributes to the development of revolutionary cinema and to the Haitian people's quest for liberation by reclaiming popular expression and reasserting the validity and ultimate invincibility of the struggle which gave rise to those forms.

The method is expressionistic rather than realistic. Myth and symbol become means for understanding. It is a film which addresses the unconscious as much as the conscious mind — perhaps more. Herein lies the power of the film: paradoxically, it raises our consciousness through its use of the unconscious aspects of ideology.

The dancers themselves take on symbolic identities, becoming the gods and goddesses of the vodun pantheon before losing their identities again in the mass of dancers — Oggun, god of lightning and warrior spirit; Erzulie, goddess of love, mourning the blood her people have shed; Legba, god of the crossroads, who symbolizes the choice of rebellion. Poetic language reinforces visual symbols and archetypes.

Color, almost overwhelming in its intensity, exercises various symbolic functions. The remarkable purity of color and lighting seems to be inspired by Haitian folk painting in which human figures are reduced to their barest representative essentials by a direct and accessible style, which has been dubbed "primitive" by worldly Westerners. As in Haitian folk murals, characters can be identified by the color of their costume — purple for Oggun, yellow for Erzulie. There is a constant interplay between the colors visible on the screen and those alluded to in the narration. Red, present so often as blood, also represents anger, as when Marthe cries, "Toussaint is not dead. He will blossom in the red flower of anger!"

In different ways, both natural and artificial lighting accentuate the boldness of the color imagery. In the opening sequence of the film and at several other points, Marthe Jean-Claude is shot in close-up against a black background, her face lit theatrically in reds and blues. As the dancers cease milling around the studio and begin to take on their historical roles, they crowd together in front of an open doorway and begin the reenactment of a slave uprising. Following that sequence, the action moves outdoors where the dancers, now a band of slaves in loose white garments, move through jungle and quarry in pursuit of and in battle with their unseen enemy.

Quick editing adds to the dynamism of this fast-paced film. Especially effective is the mounting tension created by drumbeats synchronized with both dancing and camera action, cutting from a live scene to murals to still photographs and back to the live scene again. Hand-held cinematography in some of the dance sequences — in the quarry, for example — draws the audience even more into the musical rhythms.

In the occasional close-ups of Marthe Jean-Claude against a black studio backdrop, the audience cannot escape involvement with her. She is almost possessed; her singing expresses her entire being. At other moments, the camera pulls beck from her to include a crowd of faces behind her, strong and impassive, thus emphasizing the collective consciousness of the Haitians

The final sequence shows Marthe Jean-Claude alone in darkness, as she was in the opening sequence. She repeats the incantation of her opening words. Guerrilla fighters in the fields respond in chorus to her song. The camera cuts repeatedly between the images of the two, caller and respondents. While the film has come full circle, its ending does not represent closure or circularity, but a deliberate and open-ended challenge: "Fight, Haitians, fight:" The process which has unfolded within the film affects the viewer on political and emotional levels. SIMPARELE presents both the possibilities and the realities of mass political change, affirming that the audience too can undertake revolutionary action while underlining the responsibility of this choice.

Post-revolutionary Cuban cinema strives to smite cultural expression and political consciousness. SIMPARELE not only succeeds in doing this, but also bridges a gap that has existed in Marxist ideology between political praxis and spiritual consciousness. In this integration, SIMPARELE surpasses many other political films. The heartbeat of a people, the pulse of collective experience, is recognized and affirmed as a moving force capable of transforming material reality.

"Artistic culture has always been seen as the spiritual side of society, and scientific culture as its body. The traditional repression of the body, of material life, and of the concrete problems of material life has also been due to the idea that things of the spirit are higher, more elegant, more serious and more profound. We should grasp right now that the things of the body are also elegant and that material life is also beautiful. We should realize that, in reality, the soul is in the body just as the spirit is in material life…"[2]

SIMPARELE explores both the language of a people's art and their forms of spiritual expression. A multi-leveled use of symbol, metaphor and archetype moves the viewer in a way that political analysis by itself, cut off from the forms of expression which a people evolves to express their identity, cannot do. Music, dance, poetry, "primitive" painting, ritual, legend and myth combine to catalyze the audience's ability to envision a total transformation of society. Politically committed artists too often ignore the importance of unconscious aspects of ideology. In their analytical approach, they tend to leave untouched the realm of symbols, myth and ritual and their role in the formation of consciousness. Many of us think of spirituality as being antithetical to political consciousness and action, but if spirituality is seen as conveying our individual and collective experience through the language of expressive forms which move us, then we have discovered yet another unifying force in the struggle for social transformation and the realization of our potential. SIMPARELE is a call to support the continued revolutionary struggle of a particular people. At the same time, it is a challenge to each of us to appropriate the world with reason and passion. 


1. H.P. Davis, Black Democracy: The Story of Haiti (New York: Dial Press) 1967, p. 36.

2. Julio García Espinosa, "For an Imperfect Cinema" (London: Afterimage No. 3, summer, 1971) p. 63.