This film by an Israeli director about albino killings in Tanzania is replete with Western stereotypes about the African savage, without any historical or political context
Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided – Arthur Frank
The 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, a well-attended event, presented three films on Africa. All of them deal with sociopolitical and traditional enormities of the particular country featured.
A group of us, more inclined to the albino story, attended the screening of White Shadow, a film by Berlin-based Israeli director, Noaz Deshe, his debut, inspired by the ostracizing and albino killings prized by superstition in rural Tanzania. The director was in Dar es Salaam on a film teaching assignment when he learned about Albino Witchcraft Murders, a Storyville documentary aired on BBC. The feature on ‘deep-rooted superstition, that leads to the belief that procuring the arm, legs, fingers, skin or hair of an albino person and brewing it into a potion will make them rich,’ instantly appealed to the director which led to the production of a documentary-like film with a fictional feature improvisation. It prompted the galvanization of a group of people who assisted in the production and a quick research conducted in Berlin, with an urgency that resulted in an instant screenplay co-written with James Masson.
‘White Shadow’ is a story about Alias, the main protagonist an adolescent albino boy acted movingly and remarkably by an amateur, Hamisi Bazili. Alias, after witnessing the murder of his albino father by a group of men, is sent off by his mother from his rural home to find refuge in the city with her brother, Kosmos. Under his uncle’s care, a truck driver struggling to make ends meet, Alias quickly adapts to life in the city. Upon arrival, thrown into a culture of selling products on the big city streets, he discovers ways of earning a living in the urban milieu. In the city, wrestling with identity, hardships of city life and a need for childhood comfort, Alias often leaves the city to find ease with his albino community. Eventually he realizes that the same rules of survival apply wherever he may be.
A fiction film with a personal and impressionistic view of albinos in Tanzania, the story is premised around what the creator has gathered to be his objective verity. Dancing between fiction and non-fiction, the film is entrenched with graphic scenes of blood and gore, presenting the African men as godless beasts; men in the lowest position humanity. Wrenched out by an aching and broken world, the scenes makes one shift uncomfortably as one shields their eyes from men mercilessly hacking a man’s body with a machete. It is a storyline that depicts forlorn humanity in rural Tanzania and extends the construct to implicate the city and a whole culture, bringing to the foray all the complexities with little nuances that give way to its understanding.
Most are scenes entrenched with adventure through a sinful city accompanied with images of a young generation inheriting the troubles and burdens of old tradition. Witchcraft and sorcery in the rural areas are put up against church priests: much like when colonialism presented local beliefs as evil and uncouth, and as religion emergent from the west is said to save Africa from its sinful indigenous ways. Alongside is an episode of men and women in the city quarreling over the dead, whose family is obviously split between two religions clashing on whether to have a Muslim or Christian burial. Thrown into the disarrayed event is the hiring of a traditional mourner straight off the street, to ensure a noisy and passionate farewell. It is a city projected to be at odds with itself, broken by perplexity, economics, sex and violence. And rural Tanzania is framed as divided and shadowy while sorcery and the occult maintain a strong foothold. Underneath all the implications, while all scenarios lead to economics and systemic injustice – including the witchdoctors, middlemen and the clients who pay for albino body parts – the story irresponsibly and insensitively places emphasis upon cultural and traditional aspects, with little to no historical and political context.
FICTION AND RESPONSIBILITY
It is said that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. That fiction and non-fiction are only different techniques of storytelling. Further, I believe, fiction has the same social responsibility, duty of integrity and sensitivity that is expected from non-fiction. In narrating a whole culture as disoriented and iniquitous, the enormity of the albino condition and witchcraft killings feels minimized in ‘White Shadow’ by a shortfall of a feel for the place – lived cultural experience – and the comprehension of the historical and political consequence of a culture.
Subsequent to the viewing, during a Q&A, the director made it clear that he was more concerned about the artistic formation, emphasizing on creating strong lead characters. When asked how he felt about portraying such an account with no historical or political context, and what that may do to the foreign audience’s psyche, who already may have a poor image of Africa, he made it clear again that he was more concerned with portraying strong lead characters.
If it is indeed merely a feature film, purely for entertainment purposes, even then it falls short of the moral standard as it goes back and forth between reality and heavily de-saturated themes –flirting between fiction and non-fiction. In constructing and narrating such human tragedy, I believe a teller should be held answerable for the story they tell and responsible for the character(s) they create as they insensitively put them up against each other’s culture while representing a whole culture as brutal and immoral. Characteristic of most African films and stories told by the west, and as rightly voiced by Biyi Bandele, ‘Even the most liberal filmmakers can’t resist. They’ve got a God-complex.’ This time though, the hero is not a western man or woman but a fictionalized character emerging from a western idea. An idea that stresses on division while putting an African in opposition to a fellow African, inimical to our interests; an idea that makes us feel very merciless and leaves us in a quandary. An idea, yet again, that places African indigenous belief systems as barbaric and immoral while belief systems emergent from the west are depicted as exemplar of civilization and ideal piety, in a world of persistent savagery.
By no means am I attempting to avoid or turn a blind eye to the harrowing account and killings of the African albinos. That is not the point of this piece. But rather, I wonder whom this film is written for? Who it aspires to serve? How it aims to shift or bring an end to the atrocity? Who has the right to challenge and narrate particularities of a culture? How does the unverified and under-researched narrative change the world for better? A world that ought to educate and facilitate knowledge to the young and coming generation, I can’t help but wonder how our children will make sense of such a film and make the appropriate correlation between those things that have been used to define our existence and the actual. In the end, White Shadow, in attempting to speak of an enormity is regrettably stymied by its western representation and gaze. Leaving brutal images implanted in the psyche and too many questions left unanswered. A world, yet again, left to grapple with compositions fixated on dark and savage images out of Africa, with no historical context to critically examine the circumstance further. An audience left shocked and hopelessly unsure with what to do next.