PARK CITY, Utah — You may not think a ski resort in Utah is the place for an Italian/German/French financed film from an Israeli director about the ills of Tanzanian society, but unexpected offerings like “White Shadow” is what the Sundance Film Festival is all about.
Noaz Deshe, the son of Israeli producer Avraham Deshe and a musician and visual artist, went to Dar Es Salaam in 2010 to teach a short filmmaking class. While there he learned of the shocking underground trade in albino body parts, which witch doctors promote as having healing capabilities. With poverty rampant, albinos living in certain areas go through life with a bullseye on their back, never sure when they will be captured and killed.
Rather than make a finger-pointing documentary to elucidate this troubling issue, Deshe parachutes us directly to experience the life of a young albino with an hallucinatory and oftentimes confusing narrative. The result, ultimately, is a striking work of art, even more remarkable considering it is Deshe’s first film.
Mixing gorgeous location photography and stretches of, at first, voice-over with no discernible point of origin, the early scenes of “White Shadow” are something of a swirl. (Quite frankly, I may not have known that this was specifically Tanzania had I not read it. Perhaps that is something of the point.) The film’s lyricism is quickly cut down when an albino man is butchered (mostly offscreen) by what can only disgustingly be called human poachers. A frantic mother (with typical skin pigmentation) is able to protect her genetically effected son.
She decides to send the pre-adolescent, named Alias, to live with her brother in the city.
The despatch of the boy is indicative of how special “White Shadow” is. There is great emotional effect in just how bluntly the scene plays out. She dumps him in a van with his uncle (whom he’s never met) and, as they are driving away, perhaps never to see one another again, she lays in with this simultaneously poetic and mundane monologue, which only benefits from translation:
Present yourself to my brother. You’re going with him. Be careful. You are being watched. Be a man. Remember what you are and where you come from. Study hard, be respectful, become a man, get a home. Eat, but not too much. Share with others. Use a condom, don’t get AIDS. You can’t cheat life. You will be judged for your actions. Be a man. Stay away from drugs. Don’t be a thief. Open a bank account. I love you. For life I am your mother.
This sequence, and many others, are shot documentary-style, hand-held, as if catching these performers candidly. There’s a roughness around the edges that can’t be applauded enough, especially once Alias gets to the city and begins his life as a street salesman, selling CDs and sunglasses to people on the side of the highway.
Alias’ arc is, in a way, similar to a number of classic “kid in the city” films. He grows up fast, learns to hustle, falls in love. The uniqueness of an albino hiding-in-plain-sight is also a looming Sword of Damocles that eventually does swoop down.
While Alias is working for his uncle he is also living in a group home setting with other albinos. Given the lack of hand-holding in Deshe’s storytelling, I must confess that I spent much of the film unsure if these scenes were meant as a flash-forward or a fantasy, or even some riff on an afterlife. Alias befriends a younger boy, Salum, and the two have numerous playtime outings that may remind some of the Terrence Malick approach to scene work. Alias also grows fond of his cousin, who is at first a tough cookie with him, then rejects him, then eventually grows to like him back (much to her father’s chagrin).
The uncle is no saint, and his mix-ups with debtors adds to the growing unease. Also, there is a side story of a witch doctor who bears some culpability for the death of Alias’ father coming to accept the faith of Christian missionaries. (These scenes feel like straight-up ethnographic documentary – who knows just how much of it was scripted.)
I can’t imagine the Tanzanian board of tourism being too please with “White Shadow,” but there are moments of humanity that shine through. Amid the tumult there are touching scenes, and fascinating cultural sequences like a bereaved woman going out among townspeople to hire mourners to wail at her uncle’s funeral.
Noaz Deshe directed, co-wrote, co-shot, co-edited and scored the film, and given its rather heady vibe it is safe to call him a total filmmaker. One can’t help but be reminded of a Sundance premiere from last year, the similarly associative “Upstream Color” from Shane Carruth, who one-ups Deshe only in that he acted in that film himself.
There are few filmmakers who announce themselves so robustly on the scene. Deshe’s most notable previous credit was as composer of the Iranian film “Frontier Blues.” With “White Shadow,” this Israeli ex-pat (living in Berlin and Los Angeles) is now firmly in the “one to watch” camp.