Ouvertures — the first feature film by The Living and the Dead Ensemble — imagines the revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture as the first Haitian diaspore. Napoléon exiled in 1802, on the other side of the ocean, the ancient slave who had become a rebel General. He condemned him to icy French Jura, to an anonymous death without burial a year later. In Ouvertures, Toussaint travels once again across the ocean, but in the other direction, and returns to the Caribbean island today. He does not recognise it, nor do people recognise him. This is therefore a particular form of restitution that resists the fixing of the nationalist narrative. He is a vilified, wandering, fugitive hero, accompanying a new loop in the spiral of History.

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

While States always secretly impart a re-ordering function to the act of restitution that is both narrative and financial, the remains and the objects looted by colonial powers often resist their assigned function, spreading in return “the chaotic disruption of old forms of relationality”, to quote Felwin Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy [1]. However, this chaotic disruption does not simply affect the relationship between the robber and the robbed, it is an upheaval for the countryexperiencing the return. It demands that radical hospitality be invented, that a space of reception be formed and imagined. And here, one cannot limit the question raised by this space to the mere presence or absence of technical devices capable of preserving, using identical fixing, the artefacts “invented” in Western museums. Since, to a certain extent, part of this repairing cannot take place in the transaction itself and cannot be mistaken for it. There is indeed an irreducible remainder in the operation of return, a dark part created by the double movement of the diaspora. This “unseen” part of objects cannot be revealed without a particular attention and assembly. Let us momentarily leave aside the excess value that is carried by the object — that which it would somehow fill in —, and instead immerse ourselves in the available, ghostly space it provides and in which will flow the community’s inner landscapes, accumulated in the secret of frustration, the inability to speak and to be heard. This is a beautiful echo chamber for stories that have never been heard.

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

The return ritual proposes not to talk about the object but to talk in the object and to listen to it talk in turn. These operations must take place elsewhere, in the midst of wakes, out of sight, outside the space of negotiated restitution and scientific cooperation between the stealing states and the stolen states, and perhaps also outside the world heritage becoming of objects. This is a situated relationship, which escapes ownership and considers the objects as active substances and disturbing forms of presence.

For the returning object — and this also goes for the particular category of human remains since restitution always involves remains returning from a form of death — is a host whom the receiving community cannot recognise without the effort of reshaping itself around this familiar strangeness, even though certain States will prefer a political reordering, nationalist stagings, and other capitalist strategies provided by the return of this dark “treasure”. The object thus doesn’t return back where it was, and it is precisely because one cannot recognise it — as we shall later see with Toussaint Louverture roaming the streets of Port-au-Prince — that it is necessary to create a new space, marked by relational practices, a performance, a ritual, a site, in the present of the return. Later, we will imagine this site from the perspective of a deviation, of fugitivity from the narrative centrality of States, which allows one to read the markings of History on other bodies and landscapes — and, in the case that will interest us, to reconnect with the complex ecology of a revolution. This way, the object finds an updated function of intercessor with other worlds and ways of saying and feeling, other ways of arranging (hi)stories, which undo the idea of heritage as shaped by French law, based on immovable property, be it the result of predation. Heritage will henceforth be replayed and interpreted — both in a performative sense and in that of an exercise of translation, which takes the body as a tool, a way of being with. The artefacts will provide a disquieting companionship, forms of deviation, spaces and new scenes in the fringes of their captive stagings. They will no longer be preserved, their form will keep changing, producing new sites. These are Maroon [2] objects. If the term Maroon opens up poetic and political uses that aim, in particular, to turn that word into anticapitalist means of expression, it is necessary, in order to avoid trivialising them by removing them from the context in which they appeared — and thereby forgetting some of their characteristics —, to always specify what is meant by their updating. Maroon is here understood as a principle of deviation from toxic ecologies, but also as a return from a form of death, of non-being, as a movement that turns slaves’ runaway into an escape from the world of objects, a detour — in the sense that there is no possible symmetrical return — towards living forms. We therefore believe that it is a useful concept to change the perspective of the restitution narrative.

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

The missing remains of the complicated hero Toussaint Louverture — the fallen revolutionary leader from Saint-Domingue — recovered from their frozen exile in Jura, are a good example of the epistemological mess of this impossible return. The film Ouvertures opposes the arrangements of the nationalist narrative with the necessities of a ritual renewing the hero’s potentialities. This is not the smooth ore used for making statues but the multifaceted crystal diffracting all the faces of a community. This is where the power of Louverture’s heritage lies — an unresolved disorder, an ongoing revolutionary affair. Its imperfection is a precious legacy, its contradictions and wanderings force the community welcoming him to question itself and invent new paths. If the body of the hero returns, it is therefore not to be erected, but on the contrary to “become ground” that is new and unstable. Louverture is a Potomitan — the central post of the Vodou temple around which everything is structured. Yet, a post that is burning, melting, like the one the French used to attach the body of the rebel François Mackandal, publicly setting him on fire on January 20, 1768. For nearly eighteen years, they had been looking for the charismatic Maroon, blamed for the deaths of some six thousand settlers. While the flames of the burning pyre were taking hold the famous one-armed poisoner, the post to which he was attached collapsed due to the heat. According to folk history, Mackandal then turned into an animal and jumped away from the fire, disappearing into the forest, using yet another magical trick, of which he holds the secret. This counter-narrative creates a fluid figure running away from the stage built by French power in order to celebrate his death, and thereby, the destruction of a powerful imaginary world of resistance. Yet, Mackandal’s alternative end opens up, on the contrary, a potential space in the margins of the stage of this political spectacle, in the darkness of the forest hills, which soon after became the backdrop for new uprisings. Thirty three years later, it is in Bois Caïman that the revolution of an entire population began.

In turn, the film Ouvertures neither celebrates nor gets rid of the hero. Instead, it seeks to make him fertile again in the present of a fighting community. In order to track his remains that are both untraceable and cumbersome, it is necessary to make a detour through the beautiful island of Saint-Domingue, the “pearl of the Caribbean” for the French and sunny hell for the slaves who founded Haiti.

On the eve of the French Revolution, the Saint-Domingue colony enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and wealth in the Caribbean. In 1789, it was the world's largest producer of sugar and coffee. Its foreign trade represented over one third of that of Metropolitan France, and one in eight French people lived directly or indirectly on it. As a plantation, the economic and social organisation of Saint-Domingue was dominated by the privileges of great white plantation owners, but it was placed under control of Metropolitan France, which set prices, enjoyed trade monopoly whilst prohibiting the development of any form of local industry. Adding to this first level of tension between the white elites from Metropolitan France and those from the colony — as well as between the colonial powers in the region —, there was also a complex social structure wherein small whites — employees, workers, civil servants — lived alongside, and not without friction, free men of colour — freedmen or creole mulattos — and slaves, some of whom, having run away from the plantation, already formed Maroon communities — and soon real armies.

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

While it is widely celebrated as the modern world’s first successful slave uprising, the Haitian Revolution is thus much more heterogeneous than the crystal-clear expression suggests. For this interplay of contradictions, of pragmatic or unexpected alliances with or against France, this weaving together of contingencies, of debts, of enmities and hard feelings composing the creole ethos form the very matrix of this pivotal event in colonial modernity. This impure form obviously does not take away any of the power of the Haitian revolutionary act. It simply opposes the romantic pantheon of heroes with a human and non-human assembly that keeps being recreated and a revolution as a movement without a resolution. The World-Chaos that produces a creolised situation is thus inherently unpredictable and unstable. Here, we understand creolised as the quality of an ownerless form, produced by multiple contingencies that find a precarious balance in a specific historical situation. This creolised stage has nothing to do with a peaceful resolution — it cannot be fixed, it is a space undergoing constant transition, which the national narratives will deliberately attempt to stabilise, at the cost of several omissions and trafficking. Although the exercise of revolutionary composition is in fact even broader, extending beyond the human faction. One has to take into account the specific geography of the island of Saint-Domingue, its mountains and caves, which provide particularly effective shelter for Maroons, as well as the climate and geological forces that literally took part in the battle — including the devastating 1784 earthquake. Not to mention the several unannounced alliances with non-human and viral forms. The yellow fever — which plagued from 1802 to 1803 a signifiant proportion of the expeditionary forces brought to Général Leclerc to restore slavery on the island — provided support, so to speak, to the insurgents during the Battle of Vertières that marked the final victory and soon the island’s independence.

In order to apprehend the Haitian revolution, it is therefore necessary to think about the configuration of these human conflicts and non-human forces rather than to renew an imaginary world that would cleanse history of its contradictory and chaotic movements, relegating this break with the colonial order to the shadow of the French Revolution. Or, on the contrary, to radically underestimate the relations between the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution, in favour of a purely indigenist narrative or one that would magnify the invisible hand of natural forces. This revolution is therefore a wonderfully impure form just as the very figure of Toussaint Louverture is. The return of his — real or imaginary — remains is the promise of a productive disorder, of a revolutionary reimplementing, of which he will be the battle field.

[1] Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics” https://www.about-africa.de/images/sonstiges/2018/sarr_savoy_en.pdf

[2] Fugitive slaves who formed independent communities.