Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) is an ethnographic documentary, stitched from materials shot by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren shortly after her death. Through words and images, Deren invites to a world of rhythmic drums, bare-feet dancing and possessions.
The other day I got to watch a 46-minutes long documentary entitled Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985), as a courtesy of Mubi.com.
This experimental documentary film is a collection of scenes, which explain the ins-and-outs of Voudoun (widely known as voodoo), the traditional religion of Haitians. The structure of the film’s fairly simple, as it focuses entirely on rites, and does so with a rather academic approach. But in spite of the scholarly narrative, the form itself is anything but ordinary.
In order to grasp the idea behind Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985), it’s essential to know Maya Deren a bit more.
Maya Deren’s life and years spent in Haiti influenced Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985)
Maya Deren practiced many arts, from filmmaking to dancing, poetry and photography. As an avid critic of Hollywood, Deren was fascinated by movement as a form itself, and explored image through the element of subconscious. In Deren’s first film – entitled Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – the filmmaker used various editing techniques to conjure up a dream-like construct; full-on expressionism to be frank. Over the course of her career, she experimented a lot, and became an interesting figure in the independent scene.
So, after year spent in Haiti, Deren delved deeply into the Haitian religion, and accumulated unique footage. As Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) proves, Deren must have been very close to the locals.
An immersive journey to the Haitian voodoo
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) embraces Deren’s visual journey, and views it from her personal perspective. The black-and-white footage varies from scenes including animal sacrifices, to a haunting dans macabre, performed by possessed villagers from Haiti. There’s an obvious degree of the author’s fascination, but also respect for the tradition. Through Deren’s lenses, Haiti’s both violent, and culturally mesmerizing; tempting and dangerous.
Since Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) was a post-mortem artwork, the film’s been completed by Deren’s ex-husband, Teiji Ito. As an act of further commemoration, Ito used Maya Deren’s book to narrate the documentary. This narration proves essential to understanding the rites we observe – the roles of mambos, houngans (the priests), as well as the detailed stories on several of Haitian gods – including a most recognizable one, Guede.
The thing that interested me the most though, is how Deren captured the homogeneity of nature, the villagers and the vivid portrayal of religion brought into everyday life.
All the bodies are linked by an invisible thread, as if there’s harmony in those spastic, inhuman moves. As said in the film; “shoes are removed because the Gods likes to dance bare feet“. Deren does portray Voudoun as physical, often violent and untamed. And thanks to its scholarly narration, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) highlights Haiti’s bizarre, deeply spiritual and captivating culture.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985)
Hate Grade: 4/10
Director: Maya Deren, Teiji Ito, Cherel Ito (ex-husband of Deren and his wife)
If you’re interested in voodoo-themed films like Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985), you might want to check out:
- Zombi Child (2019) – an indie drama set partially in France, partially in Haiti. It explores the voodoo roots of its protagonist, who lives in modern Europe. Read about the film here.
- The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988) – Wes Craven’s take on voodoo, filmed in Haiti and delivering a few blood-curdling moments
- Live and Let Die (1973) – a classic James Bond flick with voodoo cult story, and a fantastic take on Guede
- Venom (2005) – a silly, but nonetheless enjoyable slasher set in Louisiana, which is entirely based on voodoo rites
And if you’re into occultism in films in general, you must read this list of 12 top occult movies ever.