At what point does the deep discomfort of watching a film, one which casts needed light on a profoundly repulsive practice, become so challenging that it risks alienating the audience it seeks to engage? “White Shadow,” the first feature from Berlin-based Israeli filmmaker Noaz Deshe, which plays Sundance this weekend having already picked up the Best Debut award in Venice, mired us deep in this quandary, being a story, bruisingly told, set in the horrifying world of “albino hunting” in Tanzania, where local superstitions have led to a lucrative trade in albino body parts believed by witch doctors to have mystical properties. There is no level on which a film about such a grotesquely inhuman tradition should leave us unmoved, but Deshe’s film (executive produced by Ryan Gosling) puts even the hardiest of viewers through their paces, alternating long, woozy stretches of narratively jumbled, fragmented impressions with sudden extraordinary outbursts of fleshy violence. It’s undeniably effective, to an almost physiological degree, but it makes it a very, very difficult watch.
Alias (Hamisi Basili) is the albino son of an albino father who is killed early on in brutal fashion (told through panicky, impressionistic night-time photography). Alias’ mother then sends him away to work for his uncle (James Gayo) in the city, selling bootleg CDs in traffic jams and scavenging discarded electronics, where Alias forms an attachment to his cousin Antoinette (Glory Mbayuwayu), and ends up living in a kind of commune/safe house with several other albino children, including the best friend (Salum Abdallah) who followed him to the city. But it transpires that his uncle has serious problems of his own, and Alias realizes he cannot escape the legacy of his skin even in the relative anonymity of the city.
This sketched-in narrative only really becomes coherent after the opening third, which is so impressionistic as to make it difficult to piece together. Using a looped-over approach to the sound, only rarely do we actually see the characters speak the words we hear, which contributes to a fractured, dreamlike tone, a kind of black-magic-realism (imagine an anti-“Beasts of the Southern Wild” designed not to inspire wonder, but stomach-churning dread). In fact it’s less dreamy than nightmarish: even when the two friends are off alone in the brush, sharing childish notions about flying and girls, there is nothing idyllic about these moments. They are tinged with the specter of something terrible that hovers just out of frame. Once we’re in the city, however, the film does take on an easier-to-follow structure, because even though life here is poverty-blighted and marginalized, the prosaic rhythms of commerce, barter, even traffic jams provide a sort of brief haven for Alias as he falls for Antoinette and learns the ropes of his new business. But that circling darkness is gathering, largely in the form of a repulsive loan shark to whom his uncle is in debt, and after only a brief respite, the films strays back into queasy horror territory.
By some incremental alchemy, however, as oddly paced and hallucinatory as it is, it does cast its own macabre spell. Deshe knows his way around a jarring cut, giving the impression of raggedy time and strange ellipses that disorient and intrigue in equal measure. And so when the climax occurs, despite all the foreshadowing dread, it comes as a total shock from which, as repellant and profoundly disturbing as it is, we couldn’t tear our eyes away.
Make no mistake, this is not an “Africa” movie. This is not a portrait of disenfranchisement, or even an “issues” film. This is Hell. It is social realism as seen by Hieronymus Bosch, and if you are looking for a vision of absolute evil, the absolute repudiation of humanity, there are a couple of scenes here that will serve your purpose well. Is it possible that “White Shadow” is simply too good at evoking the horror of this unimaginably barbaric practice, and the terrible injustice of living a marked life from birth solely because of a trick of pigmentation? We have to admit, it first took a lot of our patience, and then all of our nerve, to make it through to the end, but that simply makes it a film that is exactly as upsetting as its subject matter warrants. “White Shadow” is probably as important to see as it is difficult to watch which is a paradox that we can’t see many viewers navigating with ease, but it does herald the arrival of a brave, totally uncompromising talent in Deshe, with a film that will scratch away in the dark untrafficked corners of your mind long after it ends. [B]