This review was originally published by the (UK) Guardian Africa Network on March 19, 2015.
White Shadow, released this week in the UK tells the story of a teenage Tanzanian boy with albinism, Alias, who lives in constant fear of his life.
The film, by German director Noaz Deshe, tells a fictional story informed by the situation facing Tanzania’s albino population today.
At least 75 people with albinism have been killed in Tanzania since 2000, with many suffering violent attacks. A belief that albino body parts can be used to bring good fortune has been a key factor in fuelling the violence.
Albinos have long been stigmatised in Tanzanian society, highlighted in the film’s trailer: Alias being taunted by his peers to “go back to where you belong. You make us sick.” It then goes on to show deals being made in the black market trade for organs.
The film could not be more timely. A recent spate of brutal attacks in Tanzania has once again caught the attention of the world’s media.
In August 2014, five people suffered attacks as a result of their pigmentation disorder. In December, a four year old girl was abducted and three months later is still missing. Just last month, a toddler was snatched from his mother’s arms. His mutilated body was found a few days later.
“The killing of albinos disgraces and demeans our country. They are intolerable acts,” said Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, in his monthly address to the nation at the end of February.
White Shadow is not the first film to explore the lives of albinos in Tanzania. It follows in the footsteps of undercover reports from Al Jazeera and the BBC for In the Shadow of the Sun in 2012, but it is the first fictional account of its kind to get play on the international film circuit.
Previous international blockbusters including the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix Reloaded have been criticised for perpetuating the “evil albino” stereotype; but Alias, played by Hamisi Bazili in no way perpetuates this approach, nor is he a helpless victim.
The teenager is a rounded character with a sense of fun, playing games with his young friends and, at one point, tricking a girl he likes into giving him a kiss.
Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola has described the film as “timeless, haunting, horrific and beautiful.” It also won awards at Venice Critics Week and the Seattle International Film Festival.
The film brings the wider context of attacks on albinos to life, highlighting problems with poverty as an addition to ritual belief. The sometimes ineffective schooling system – and problems with the health service and policing – all serve to exacerbate the problem.
The film uses artistic camera-work and limited dialogue to bring out the characters’ uncertainties and internal conflicts. It’s an effective approach, but occasionally the scenes slow and are hard to follow. For such a complex and controversial issue, it could have benefited from a more straightforward approach to storytelling.
Importantly the film also seeks to highlight the issue of witchcraft beyond attacks on the albino community. Although it gets less media attention the number of people – often elderly women – killed in Tanzania in acts of mob violence after being accused of witchcraft is exponentially higher than attacks on albinos.
Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre reports that 765 people were killed as a result of witchcraft allegations in 2013, and 320 in the first half of 2014.
White Shadow does not shy away either from graphic violence or from complexity. Alias’s story is told with honesty and with nuance. There is hope, humanity and beauty here as well as fear and brutality. The result is powerful and moving.
White Shadow is released in the UK on 19 March.