White Shadow: Sundance Review

Sundance Film Festival
This harrowing account of a young albino's fight for survival in Tanzania is too long, but nonetheless often gripping.

Director Noaz Deshe's debut feature, executive produced by Ryan Gosling, is a violent, Tanzania-set story of an albino boy, played by impressive newcomer Hamisi Bazili.

The harrowing reality of being an albino in Tanzania, where witch doctors pay good money for limbs and organs of human albinos, is brought to impressionistic life in White Shadow, the feature debut of Israeli, Berlin-based director Noaz Deshe.

Though the film has many rough edges and could easily lose a reel or two, Deshe, who co-wrote the screenplay with James Masson, packages his culturally very specific film as an easily accessible hunt of sorts, in which the youthful protagonist, Alias, played by terrific non-professional Hamisi Bazili, is the prey and the hunters are a group of men selling albino meat and entrails to witch doctors. Premiering at Sundance after a Venice Critics’ Week premiere, this film should have no problem filling houses at festivals, though distribution beyond VOD platforms will likely be limited.

In a traumatic early sequence, Alias witnesses the murder of his albino father (Tito D. Ntanga) when a group of men come under the cover of night and hack off his limbs so they can sell them. Deshe stages the gruesome happening in almost pitch-black darkness, with the limited visibility and loud shouting and wailing only augmenting the sense of horror and dread.

After burying the remains of his father with his mother (Riziki Ally), she tells her son that he has to leave with a man, Kosmos (James Gayo, adequate), who turns out to be his uncle, because she can’t take care of him alone, and he’s just as much at risk as his father was. His uncle puts him to work on the heavily trafficked streets of the big city, hawking CDs and sunglasses, but Alias is unhappy and finally ends up in a home with other albino children, including his diminutive pal Salum (Salum Abdallah, also very good), who claims he’s a witch doctor too, though his colleagues keep stealing his clients.

Though there’s clearly an overarching and very pressing story that picks up again in the film’s second half, the entire mid-section is an almost documentary-like, improvised-feeling look at Alias and how he interacts with those around him. There’s the casual intolerance he encounters from both the men around him -- a preferred insult is “pig skin” -- and the girls, who think touching him is disgusting, but there’s also one of the sweetest romantic scenes ever shot on a scrap heap and involving a mobile phone of which at least half the parts are missing. There are also echoes of the recent Oscar nominee War Witch, which similarly featured an albino boy as one of the leads.

As the four credited editors (including the director) string these scenes together, the tension begins to sag and White Shadow takes on an almost impressionistic quality, as the focus of the film has shifted from something very specific -- the threat of being killed and the skills needed to survive -- to something much less obvious. The reappearance of Kosmos, who’s heavily indebted to some local hoodlums who pummel him at every occasion, finally puts the hunters back on track for their prized prey, and the film on track to its blood-curdling conclusion.

The film's camera work is agile, occasionally even jumpy, and the colors go back and forth between realistic and heavily de-saturated during the day and almost pitch black at night, when Alias is not so much a white shadow as an orange blotch, often only illuminated by the light of his torch. This jumble of different types of footage, shot by German cinematographer Armin Dierolf and the director, infuses the film with an energy that’s part bad fever dream, part harsh reality.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Asmara Films, Shadoworks, Mocajo Film, Chromosom Filmproduktion, French Exit, Phantasma Films, Real2Reel
Cast: Hamisi Bazili, James Gayo, Glory Mbayuwayu, Salum Abdallah, Tito D. Ntanga, Riziki Ally, James P. Salala, John S. Mwakipunda   
Director: Noaz Deshe
Screenwriters: Noaz Deshe, James Masson
Producers: Ginevra Elkann, Noaz Deshe, Francesco Melzi d’Eril
Executive producers:  Ryan Gosling, Stefano Gallini-Durante
Co-producers: Alexander Wadouh, Matthias Luthardt, Babak Jalali
Directors of photography: Armin Dierolf, Noaz Deshe
Production designers: Smith Kimaro, Deepesh Shapriya
Music: James Masson, Noaz Deshe
Costume designers: Sandra Leutert, Caren Miesenberger
Editors: Noaz Deshe, Xavier Box, Robin Hill, Nico Leunen
Sales: Premium Films
No rating, 116 minutes