The waking nightmare of the African albino muti trade — whereby albinos are hunted for their supposedly restorative body parts — is a tricky subject to film without leaning too far in the directions of exploitation or exoticism, but artist-turned-filmmaker Noaz Deshe’s staggering debut feature, “White Shadow,” strikes the necessary balance with vision to burn. Veering wildly between earthy verite and near-ecstatic surrealism, this Tanzanian-set tale of a resourceful albino adolescent learning to survive in a community brutally geared against his kind is stylistically reckless in the best possible way — a quasi-horror film that evokes a world physically and spiritually out of balance. Already a Critics’ Week winner at Venice, this overlong but arresting pic should make further waves on the fest circuit, aided by the presence of Ryan Gosling as executive producer; gutsy distribs only need apply.
With its focus on Central African youth in peril, interludes of dreamy stylization and non-native directorial perspective, “White Shadow” will routinely be compared to Kim Nguyen’s recent, Oscar-nominated child-soldier study “War Witch” — which also, as it happens, featured a significant albino character. They’re certainly complementary works, though Deshe’s film is less disciplined and more abrasively textured. An Israeli director based in Berlin and Los Angeles, Deshe (who also had a hand in writing, lensing, editing and scoring the pic) films the harsh African landscape with an outsider’s curiosity and inclusiveness, but what beauty he captures is mostly residual.
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After a lyrical introduction that layers wistfully reflective voiceover over a spun-sugar cloudscape, the film’s opening stages are less concerned with setting a scene than they are with establishing a vivid and unshakable sense of trauma — zeroing in on isolated images of slaughter, human and otherwise, in disorienting darkness. We may be processing them in much the same fragmented but intensified fashion as our young protagonist, Alias (electric newcomer Hamisi Bazili), as he watches the nighttime murder of his father (Tito D. Ntanga) at the machete-wielding hands of local muti harvesters.
With Alias in grave danger of meeting a similar fate, he is sent by his mother (Riziki Ally) to the city (not named, but presumably Dar es Salaam) for protection. It’s hardly an escape, however, from the overhanging presence of death: The city, Alias learns, is a place where coffins form assembly lines, and where he can earn 500 shillings a pop to mourn at strangers’ funerals. It’s at this point that the film’s chronology begins to blur, mirroring Alias’ addled, fearful mental state. Put to work as a street hawker by his uncle Kosmos (James Gayo), he falls in love with non-albino Antoinette (Glory Mbayuwayu, beguiling) and winds up in a refuge for albino children — together with his best friend, self-styled junior witch doctor Salum (Salum Abdallah), whom we later learn followed him to the city.
This nonlinear, seemingly intuitive middle stretch is where the film could most use some tightening, rich as it is with social and sensual detail; its rheumy-eyed gaze takes in everything from bizarre spider-racing rituals to tender declarations of love on the town scrap heap. The proceedings regain their feverish urgency in the home stretch, as Deshe and his three co-editors reapply some pressure: Alias finds himself the target of a manhunt, culminating in a chilling waterborne hide-and-seek sequence that proves Deshe has formal discipline to match his sense-led discursiveness. Even in the film’s most opaque stretches, however, Bazili’s tender-tough performance is a galvanizing, humanizing force.
The camera, manned by Deshe and Armin Dierolf, is itself a near-performative presence, its frequent, agile switches in visual register — conjuring high-definition docu-realism in one scene, and color-saturated expressionism in the next — underlining Alias’ own shifting sense of security and self-awareness. Intricately looped, layered sound design works to similar effect, swelling from ambient buzz to clattering chaos, and working in close conjunction with the rattling score by Deshe and James Masson (also the film’s screenwriters).
Densely woven as its sensory tapestry is, “White Shadow” never feels studied or affected in the way that films from artists graduating to the medium sometimes can do: There’s plenty of room here for observational, seemingly ad hoc asides. One particular passing image lingers long in the memory, of street children kissing and practically deifying a tablecloth image of Barack Obama — a symbol of Western democracy that has no apparent bearing on this community’s troubling internal discrimination.