Human Rights Watch Film Festival Review: In the Shadow of the Sun (2012)

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Director: Harry Freeland
Country: Tanzania | UK
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: the following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information visit the official website or follow @hrwfilmfestival on Twitter

It’s like an absurd extract from some alternate earth: at the centre of a circle of black villagers, a white-skinned man demands they tell him why he’s “different”. It shouldn’t seem strange, given the course of human history; it shouldn’t surprise us that people can be so unrelentingly awful to each other for no better reason than their appearance. Yet the Tanzanian “albino apartheid”, fed by superstitions of their limbs’ worth to witch doctor rituals, makes for drama of the most distressing sort in In the Shadow of the Sun. Here debut director Harry Freeland traces the efforts of an afflicted activist to get to the heart of his country’s bizarre barbarism, and with it the universally atrocious human tendency to treat difference as though it were deviance.

…the Tanzanian “albino apartheid”, fed by superstitions of their limbs’ worth to witch doctor rituals, makes for drama of the most distressing sort in In the Shadow of the Sun.

in_the_shadow_of_the_sun_2012_3“Some people say I am a ghost,” says Josephat Torner in the movie’s first moments; if he were, at least, he might escape the petrifying plight of his kind. Those born with albinism are lucky if their families don’t disown or destroy them, though considering the treatment that awaits them instead there’s a bitter irony to this being called “luck”. It’s a terrible situation that Freeland has captured, though he’s keen to emphasise it’s by no means the norm. Archival material aplenty has politicians proclaiming the murder of albinos an atrocity, even if that’s little comfort when faced with the on-the-ground reality of the film. It’s not only for the perilous risks of exposure to the sun that these people are fearful of leaving their homes.

Which is what makes so humbling and humane the task Torner sets himself, to travel the country across the course of the film’s five years and confront those who ostensibly attribute some truth to the legends. He can’t but laugh as he holds up his hands to a crowd and asks if they really believe his fingers will bring them wealth; that the man can be funny in the process of asking his life be spared is the essence of the kind of uncanny character he is. And the film follows suit: not to be bogged down by the bleakness of the situation, Freeland finds unlikely uplift in the material; In the Shadow of the Sun could hardly be called feel-good, but it is—like its subjects—aghast at the thought of just sitting about feeling bad.

Freeland’s film, taken alone, is no great work; it’s in the incessant spirit Torner lends it that it finds foremost effect.

in_the_shadow_of_the_sun_2012_4“This is what our lives have become,” laments Torner, and if ever there were a man to change it… Smiling from under his sun-hat, squinting to see the crowds that gather—albinism’s melanin deficiency also impacts the eyes—in each village he visits, he is a figure fixating enough to absorb the import of the piece. Freeland’s film, taken alone, is no great work; it’s in the incessant spirit Torner lends it that it finds foremost effect. His efforts to raise attention eventually see him planning to scale Kilimanjaro, as much to prove the equality of albinos as to exploit the action’s undoubted novelty; if the film exalts him as he approaches the peak, it’s hardly an elevation we could deem untoward.

“If I had to choose, I’d rather be poisoned than cut up,” muses one of the many albino interviewees whose experiences Torner stops to listen to on each step of his journey. Were it not for a face that says it’s a thought he’s dwelt on, we might be tempted to laugh in disbelief. In the Shadow of the Sun might centre itself on a typical tale of triumph against all odds, but it’s Freeland’s ability to express the gravity of those odds in spite of the bare simplicity of his shooting that makes his such a striking film to experience, that allows it to transcend any trace of armchair activism. Like the young albino girl whose armless right sleeve attests the alarming reality of this terrible story, we’re left looking for a way to comprehend a world in which we can treat each other this way.

[notification type=”star”]67/100 ~ OKAY. In the Shadow of the Sun might centre itself on a typical tale of triumph against all odds, but it’s Freeland’s ability to express the gravity of those odds in spite of the bare simplicity of his shooting that makes his such a striking film to experience. [/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.