In the Shadow of the Sun: IDFA Review

Engaging documentary tackles a harrowing theme of superstitious prejudice in straightforward, safe-hands style with suitably moving and inspirational results.

Harry Freeland's British documentary examines the plight of albinos suffering discrimination and persecution in Tanzania.

If film-festival audience-awards mean anything then In the Shadow of the Sun is surely set for a long and rewarding career on both big and small screens. British writer-director-producer Harry Freeland's conscientiously awareness-raising documentary about the problems faced by albinos in eastern Africa was one of the major crowd-pleasers when world-premiering at Amsterdam's IDFA non-fiction showcase. Freeland's feature-length debut lost the popular vote by the narrowest of margins to the Oscar-tipped Searching For Sugar Man, the pair clear of a very large field.

Screened at Amsterdam in its full 84-minute form, an hour-long version with the rather more lurid title Albino Witchcraft Murders aired on British television soon after as part of the BBC's Storyville strand. But there's easily enough material here to justify feature length, not least the opportunity for viewers to get to know the remarkable albino-rights campaigner Josephat Torner, himself a sufferer of the pigmentation disorder.

As Freeland illustrates, albinos continue to suffer acute prejudice and persecution in certain parts of Africa. His focus is on Tanzania where there are around 170,000 individuals with the condition, many of them living on the idyllic shores of Lake Ukerewe. Shunned by many for being so visibly different from the majority, albinos in Tanzania find themselves in particular peril because of superstitions stoked by powerful witch-doctors, especially in remote rural areas. Many practitioners of traditional medicine use the severed limbs of albinos in their rituals, procured by individuals who regard such ceremonies as short cuts to riches.

The human cost of this is most vividly displayed in a devastating sequence shot in a compound where children are segregated for their own "safety." "They held my arm and cut it off," says one little girl with heartbreaking matter-of-factness. The efforts of Torner and other campaigners are therefore pressingly urgent - but there are considerable hurdles to be overcome, not least inertia from the country's political leadership whose actions don't match their hand-wringing public rhetoric.

As a passing fisherman astutely notes of the anti-albino barbarism, "Poverty causes this," and there is the definite sense that there are much wider issues involved here, of which the albino's plight is but one particularly distressing symptom. But even within the terms of the film's specific frame of reference, Freeland's approach is sometimes frustratingly "skin-deep" -- for example, a witch-doctor is interviewed in his cavernous lair, but there's no proper confrontation or exploration of who really benefits from the grim situation.

"This business involves powerful people ... Who are these people, with money and power?" We never really find out, and as it progresses - filming took place over the course of several years -- the film becomes in effect a portrait of and tribute to Torner's heroic activities on behalf of his fellow albinos. But it's never just a one-man show, as Freeland and his editor Ollie Huddleston devote considerable screen-time to a much younger man, a teenager rejoicing in the name of Vedastus Chinese Zangule. Vedastus is, we realize, exactly the kind of individual to benefit from the changes Josephat is working so hard to effect, the lad's struggle for an education providing considerable rooting-interest as he negotiates hurdles of ignorance and bureaucracy.

There's a genuine sense of unpredictable danger in air around both Josephat and Vedastus' stories, ensuring that the upbeat finales to the two narratives -- one involving an unlikely ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro -- provide a genuine sense of accomplishment and relief. If the tone veers a little close to hagiography where Torner is concerned, then it's not entirely unjustified: conventional in form but rock-solid in terms of content, In the Shadow of the Sun is a fine example of how documentaries can cast international light on local heroes, those rare and inspirational figures of which civil-rights legends are haphazardly made.

Venue: IDFA, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance Competition)
Production company: Inroad Films
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Harry Freeland
Executive producer: Brian Hill
Directors of photography: Harry Freeland, Martin Webb
Music: Samuel Sim
Editor: Ollie Huddleston
Sales agent: Inroad Films, Bristol
No MPAA rating, 84 minutes