Representation of Africa in Film: White Shadow

011314-Celebs-Black-Films-At-Sundance-2014-White-ShadowStories 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

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, a well-attended event, presented three films on Africa. All three films deal with sociopolitical and traditional enormities of the particular country featured.

A group of us, more inclined about the albino story attended the screening of White Shadow. A film by a Berlin-based Israeli director, Noaz Deshe; his debut, accordingly, was inspired by the ostracizing and albino killings prized by superstition, in Tanzania. The director was in Dar es Salaam on a film teaching assignment when he learned through Storyville’s documentary, The Albino Witchcraft Murders, aired on BBC. The documentary that storied the “deep-rooted superstition, that leads to the belief that procuring the arm, leg, fingers, skin or hair of an albino person and brewing it into a potion will make them rich,”instantly appealed to him; leading to the production of a fictional feature with a documentary-like, improvised-feeling. Prompting the director to galvanize a group of people who would assist in the production, 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, an adolescent albino boy, movingly and remarkably acted by an amateur, Hamisi Bazili, as the protagonist.Alias, after witnessing the murder of his albino father by a group of men, gets sent off by his mother 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 figures ways of earning a living in the urban milieu. In the city, wrestling with identity, hardship of a city life and a need for childhood comfort, he often leaves the city to find ease with his albino community. Eventually realizing 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 humanely. Wrenched out by an aching and broken world, the scenes make you shift uncomfortably as you shield your eyes from men mercilessly hacking a man’s body with a machete. 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.

Scenes of witchcrafts and sorcery in the rural 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. To 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. Along with images of a young generation inheriting the troubles and burden of old tradition, and many more other scenes that adventure through a sinful city. A city projected to be at odds with itself, broken by economics, sex and violence; and rural Tanzania framed as divided and shadowy, while sorcery and the occult maintains a strong foothold. Underneath all the implications, notwithstanding the witchdoctors, middlemen and the clients who pay for albino body parts, while all scenarios leading us to economic conditions, the story irresponsibly and insensitively places emphasis upon cultural and traditional aspects, both in the rural and city life, with little to no historical and political context.

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 in White Shadow feels minimized by the lack of a feel for the place –lived experience– and the comprehension of the historical and political consequence of a culture. Subsequent to the viewing, during a Q&A the director made clear that he was more concerned about the artistic formation, emphasizing its focus on creating strong lead characters. When asked how he feels 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 clear again that he was more concerned with his strong lead characters.

If it is indeed merely a feature film, purely for entertainment purposes, even then it falls short of moral dereliction, as it goes back and forth between reality and heavily de-saturated themes –flirting on a thin line between fiction and non-fiction. In constructing and narrating such human tragedy, I believe a teller should be held answerable for the story it tells. Held responsible for the character(s) it creates while insensitively putting them up against each other’s culture, and while representing a whole culture as brutal and immoral, under inspection for gruesome crimes. 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 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 the 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, regrettably is 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, 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.

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Review by Amira Ali

The views expressed in the above review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Africa Speaks 4 Africa editorial team.

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