Even unconvincingly feeble foreign movies can hold your interest because of the exposure to unfamiliar cultures, landscapes and languages (as long as they include English subtitles, please). Making its U.S. theatrical premiere in Santa Ana tonight, White Shadow packs all of these attributes while also being mystical, sobering and highly recommended.
Even though Ryan Gosling is one of White Shadow's executive producers, there is nothing "Hollywood" about this Tanzanian/Italian/German production. The hand-held camera work, first time feature director Noaz Deshe and co-writer James Masson's slowly unfolding story and the natural locales, lighting and acting make it seem as if you're watching a documentary set in modern-day Africa.
The underlying subject of White Shadow dates back decades: the lucrative trade in albino body parts, which are claimed to have mystical powers by witch doctors who encourage "muti" or medicine murder. Tanzania has a higher rate of albino births than any other nation, and murders, mutilations and grave robberies have led to international campaigns and organizations to stop the sick practice.
Where Hollywood would have cast a non-albino white actor ("Paging Kevin Costner, Mr. Kevin Costner …") to play a bleeding-heart westerner who saves these targeted and defenseless Africans from their evil dark neighbors, White Shadow tells the story from the perspective of a young albino teen. He, his father, his younger brother and other albino children are the only whites seen on screen; the Caucasians and westerners are all behind the camera.
Elias (Hamisi Bazili, who is amazing) witnesses a brutal mutilation murder at home and is quickly shuttled to the city for his own protection. He lives with his black mother's brother Kosmos (James Gayo, also terrific), who puts the boy in school and to work in the streets selling cheap crap. The experience helps Elias find a purpose in life as well as puppy love. But in now time he's dealing with being an outcast and, eventually, the phenomenon that brought him to the city in the first place.
Credit Logan Crow of The Frida Cinema with booking White Shadow in Santa Ana, where it's first week theatrical run in the States begins tonight. On the way here, the drama won the Lion of the Future award at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Israel-born, Berlin-based Deshe was honored for his direction by the international film festivals of Durban and San Francisco..
For many of us who have not completely wrapped our heads around the idea of mutilating and selling off parts of African lions and elephants, learning about the existence of the albino muti trade is like a gut punch. But White Shadow is ultimately a win for humanity, especially if the exposure to foreigners helps wipe a horrific phenomenon off the planet.
The White Shadow poster follows on the next page …