In one sense, the story Âme noire tells is undeniably a historical one. It spans centuries, showing imagery from the days of Pharaohs up through to modern-day Canada. But to read the film as being based in history feels slightly beside the point. Âme noire isn’t so much about the past in and of itself as it is about the way that past lives on in the present, how it shapes cultures and, as the title says, soul.
Haitian-Canadian animator Martine Chartrand shapes her story as a meeting between generations. It opens with an elderly Black woman sitting at home, about to enjoy a cup of coffee. Chartrand immediately complicates the pleasantness of that scene, showing imagery of the plantations that are part of the history of the coffee she drinks, and the sugar that sweetens it, and the robe she wears as she drinks. That acknowledgement doesn’t strip the moment of its joy necessarily. But those histories are there, nonetheless.
A visit from her grandson provides another opportunity for reflection, and it’s here that the film picks up the momentum that carries it for its 10-minute span. She starts sharing their cultural heritage, and in an instant, the boy is swept along through a complex history of royalty and slavery, suffering and liberation. It’s a story told impressionistically by necessity, through glimpses of scenes both beautiful and harrowing. We see slave ships and auctions, frozen landscapes and struggles for freedom. But we also see joy and celebration, art and escapism. The grandmother isn’t just sharing history, she’s sharing legacy, explaining how all of this history connects.
Though those images are brief, they’re powerful. Chartrand is an incredibly skilled artist, and her paint-on-glass images strike a balance between painterly detail and liveliness. Her depictions of nature are especially striking—the roar of a raging fire and the crashing of waves are each given a terrifying weight in her rendering. We’ve embedded the YouTube version of the short below, but you’re much better off watching it on the NFB’s website, where a much higher resolution transfer lets you see the detail of Chartrand’s brush strokes.
Like last week’s Monday Short, Kapaemahu, Âme noire is as much about storytelling as it is about history, because the two ideas are so inextricably linked. Where Kapaemahu was about a story whose details had either been forgotten or were intentionally suppressed, Âme noire shows one in the process of being kept alive—but it ends with a detail that Canadians don’t always like to remember. The film finishes with a reminder that slavery took place here, too, that “in Canada, there were Amerindian and Black slaves from the XVII to the XIX century.” If the opening is a reminder that coffee, sugar and cotton still carry the weight of their history, the ending is a reminder that Canada’s history is complicated, too, and that the bleakest images in Âme noire are very much a part of our story.
Âme noire (Black Soul)
We strongly recommend watching the higher-resolution transfer of this film on the National Film Board of Canada website.
dir: Martine Chartrand
syn: Martine Chartrand’s animated short dives into the heart of Black culture with an exhilarating trip though history. Watch as a young boy traces his roots through the stories his grandmother shares with him about the events that shaped their cultural heritage.
Bonus: Chartrand’s website includes a timeline of the history she drew from in making this short.