White Shadow, a film by German director Noaz Deshe, deals with a frightening
problem that Tanzanian communities face today.
In Tanzania, albinos live in fear that they will be hunted like animals for their body
parts. Believed by witchdoctors to propagate wealth and good luck, the trade of
albino body parts and the terrifying stories as to how they are obtained have in
recent years left communities across the country devastated.
While doing research before he was due to give a filmmaking workshop there,
Berlin director Noaz Deshe came across the subject, and it immediately lit a fire in
him. He began crafting the first of many script drafts for his film White Shadow,
which offers a glimpse into the life of a young albino boy who lives in fear of being
preyed upon. “This is something that was in the ether. It was a story people wanted
to tell,’ he recalled.
Towards the end of 2010 and for most of 2011, Deshe immersed himself in the
communities and culture of Tanzania, first with the workshops and later in creating
a film which authentically represents local voices. He credits this to the spirit of
collaboration, both with the people he encountered and the continent he was in.
An employee of the idea
“It’s hard to schedule in Africa, you have to embrace the attitude that everything in
itself is a gift,’ says Deshe, who worked with two villages and three translators to
capture the story in its truest form. “You have to learn what the place wants and
what it dictates. It will give you way more than you asked for, but you have to let it
lead you. You are an employee of the idea; it’s not your movie, you are serving the
film,’ he added.
Careful not to let White Shadow be a product of Western subjectivity, as so many
Africans feel their narratives are, Deshe built relationships with the locals involved
and constantly checked in with his translators about how his interpretation fared
with actual events and stories. The script, which was almost entirely written in
Berlin, was rewritten in the workshops with most of the dialogue compiled after and
during the casting process.
“In those three months preparing and meeting, we shot scenes every day with
locals and asked them about their stories, and that was fed into the script. It was
such an evolving process, all the time.’
Talent lying in wait
The story of White Shadow is told through the eyes of the main character, who
moves away from his rural village to live under the shelter of the city where these
kinds of attacks are less prevalent. Unknown to Deshe, who did street castings in
Tanzania for all the roles in the film, a boy who had lived through a similar tale had
been waiting for the opportunity to bring it to the fore.
Deshe recalls, “Hamisi Bazili was waiting for us. He came to us and said “This is my
movie’. We were showing up to make a film that was already in his head. His film.
He was so confident and had a song prepared on the whole situation. It was clear
from when we first met him that: this is him, this is our main character.’
Drawing on the real-life experiences and characters he came across in the intensive
casting and workshop process, Deshe cast the film accordingly. “We saw close to
1500 people and we did scenes with each and every one over three months,’ he
explained. The antagonist is played by the most feared policeman in Dar es Salaam,
known to bring people to confession in very unorthodox ways. Some gang members
were security guards or former gang members and secret service agents. The
priest was played by an exorcist; the witchdoctor was played by a priest.
The rehearsal process involved playing games with props and allowing the actors to
connect naturally with the emotions of a scene. Deshe was amazed by the talent he
was able to uncover and said many of the main characters performed as though
they had been trained professionally.
Deshe’s will to work closely with locals not only enabled him to stay to true the
story; it also diffused any stigmas about him as a foreigner and earned him their
trust and support throughout the process. Together they pooled resources; shared in
ideas and created or sourced props, equipment and set elements. “The workshop
was an integral part,’ he said, “when you make a short film with 50 locals and you
make that a good experience for them – something they love, something they can
be proud of – it opens many doors.
That was a test: If you are able to do that, you’re allowed to do more. And once
that happened, I was no longer a tourist.’ A few people from Europe assisted on the
film, but the vast majority of cast and crew were sourced and upskilled locally.
“If you create something through collaboration, then you have people who want to
see the film. They consider it their film. We screened it in Tanzania before we
screened it anywhere – at the festival in Zanzibar and to the families; they were
very happy. They had tears in their eyes and we all hugged. It was a very
emotional moment,’ recalled Deshe.
Following much praise on the international festival circuit, White Shadow releases in
Europe and the UK after its premiere at the Institute for Contemporary Art in
London on 19 March.
Deshe and main actor Hamisi Bazili will take part in Q&As following the screenings.
It also releases online on Curzon Home Cinema and BT in March and April. The film
is distributed by Aya Distribution and is part of the TIDE Experiment, an initiative by
l’ARP in partnership with Europa Distribution.