White Shadow (Indiepix, NR)

White Shadow 75If you have the patience to take the film this film for what it is, it provides a fascinating look at aspects of life in Tanzania.





White Shadow

The plight of albinos in Tanzania has received some publicity in recent years, particularly since the release of the 2012 documentary In the Shadow of the Sun, directed by Harry Freeland. Besides being at high risk for skin cancer, due to the lack of melanin in their skin, and often suffering from poor eyesight, they are also preyed upon by hunters who seek their body parts to sell to witch doctors, who capitalize on folk beliefs that the bodies of albinos, particularly their hands and feet, carry magical powers.

White Shadow, the first feature from the Israeli director Noaz Deshe, provides a fictional point of view of the life of albinos in Tanzania, focused around a teenage boy, Alias (Hamisi Bazili) who must navigate the usual issues of growing up while also dealing with extreme danger based on the fact that he is an albino.

Early in the film, we see Alias’ father (Tito D. Ntanga) hacked to death by bounty hunters. While Deshe makes no attempt to hide the brutality of the scene (the hunters have no more regard for the father than they would an animal, and may in fact have less), it’s shown elliptically, with much of the violence off-camera or blurry, so we are left to put together exactly what happens. That’s an approach Deshe takes throughout the film—it’s composed of fragments which the viewer must put together, allowing us to learn about Alias’ world the same way he did.

Alias’ mother (Riziki Ally) then sends him to live with his uncle Kosmos (James Gayo) in the city, with the hopes of sparing him a similar fate. Like many poor children, Alias works at a variety of jobs, including hawking CDs to passing motorists, scavenging electronics parts from dumps, and working as a paid mourner at funerals. Unfortunately, danger exists in the city as well, as he notices a group of men that seem to be following him, presumably waiting for the right moment to kill him and sell his body parts.

The story becomes a bit of a blur once Alias moves to the city, but it is clear that he is both coping with the unusual risks caused by his lack of pigmentation and the ordinary aspects of life common to all teenagers. He finds shelter at a children’s home for albinos, along with his best friend from the village (Salum Abdallah), and falls in love with a non-albino girl (Glory Mbayuwayu); a brief scene in which she is almost sold in order to settle debts serves as a reminder that life is seldom a party for the poor and helpless, no matter what their skin pigmentation is.

Deshe’s approach to filmmaking requires a lot of patience on the part of the viewer, and it can lead to directorial self-indulgence, particularly in a middle section that is far too long. It’s also a good way to make a film using non-professional actors, of course, and lends itself to a small production crew (Deshe is also credits, along with others, for writing, music, cinematography, and editing).

White Shadow is an arthouse film through and through, and has done very well on the festival circuit, including winning the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for best first feature film in 2013. If you have the patience to take the film this film for what it is, it provides a fascinating look at aspects of life in Tanzania unlikely to otherwise be seen by Americans (a scene where men bet on spider races comes to mind), and Deshe makes clear the degree to which belief in magic and witchcraft is interwoven into ordinary life in Tanzania.

Extras on the DVD include 6 short featurettes (1-3 min. each) about different aspects of making the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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