We’re overdue a substantial documentary on Voodoo, an intricate, specific, sociologically complex belief system that, in common parlance, has long been relegated to common-noun status — unfairly denoting a shadowy realm of imaginary mumbo-jumbo propagated by pulp fiction and B-movies. Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou takes it upon himself to set the record straight in “In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven,” and if his directorial debut has a few unresolved edges, it makes a persuasive case for a thorough re-examination of its subject: Working inside out from his personal affiliation with West African Voodooism to a broader study of the culture it has bred across the diaspora, this 65-minute film is vivid and heartfelt when it stays close to home, but could stand more anthropological analysis in the long view.
Colorfully presented and benefiting considerably from Hounsou’s obvious personal magnetism, this Miami Film Festival premiere will slot nicely into African- or diaspora-themed festival programs, where it will continue to inspire enthusiastic post-screening discussions. Theatrical prospects are limited, but VOD outlets will make room for its grabby subject and name attachment, which, along with its brief running time, might prove conducive to broadcast in History Channel-type settings.
“Voodoo is the channel between humanity and the forces of nature,” Hounsou tells us in voiceover toward the end of the film — one of several statements here that invites further academic unpacking, but advances a more upbeat, elemental understanding of Voodoo than most viewers will bring to the film, one divorced from the inscrutable occult implications that Hounsou primarily illustrates with cheesy Hollywood film clips and digital voodoo-doll graphics. “In Search of Voodoo” is most compelling when it’s vexedly on the defense, taking down this kind of manufactured mythology and calling out the western racial prejudice that has led to such misrepresentation. Hounsou instead advances the welcome theory of “Afro-optimism” as he calls for the continent to claim control of how its history and traditions are represented internationally.
The film is on surer ground when addressing what Voodoo is not than when attempting to map out what it is — no easy feat, given how the original tenets of the belief system have splintered into subtly different religious practices in its Haitian, Brazilian and Louisiana variations, among others. Even as a professed origin story, with Hounsou returning to his Benin homeland to investigate both his own heritage and those of the indigenous religion that, for his family and many others, was minimized by Christian conversion, “In Search of Voodoo” is perhaps a bit diffuse for its slender form — its discussion bouncing from personal reflection to relayed history and folklore to contemporary environmental activism.
If it’s overstuffed, however, it certainly doesn’t want for engaging lines of thought, as a panoply of talking heads — ranging from academics to real-life Voodoo queens — rounds out Hounsou’s first-person narration, somewhat heavily written with co-producer Douglas Thompson. The script is peppered with wafty ruminations (“Was I playing a skillful game with chance, or was chance playing a skillful game with me?”) that Hounsou, ever an actor of stern, unflappable conviction, lends more gravitas than they strictly deserve.
Technically, give or take some slightly gaudy graphics, “In Search of Voodoo” is a bright, lively package, efficiently edited to a fault, and given a lick of occasionally inspired beauty by the presence of renowned editorial photographer Kwaku Alston behind the camera. Alston’s iridescent, immersive footage of celebratory Voodoo rituals and dance routines in Benin calls for an expanded, National Geographic-style documentary all its own, though as Hounsou consistently makes clear, there’s a bigger picture to be revised and understood first.