The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF) is currently touring the country as a medium for showcasing, engaging and informing audiences of pressing and lesser known human rights issues. After a two week stint in its hometown of Melbourne, HRAFF landed at the Chauvel Cinema for Sydney’s opening night, screening a documentary directed by Harry Freeland titled In the Shadow of the Sun.
The documentary follows Josephat Torner, an African man born with albinism. Albinism is the absence of melanin and pigmentation in the skin, causing visual impairments and high susceptibility to skin cancer. In Africa where traditional beliefs and superstitions are deep seeded, albinos have been dubbed spirits and white demons. A rumour spread by witch doctors claiming that the limbs of an albino will bring health, wealth and success, has brought extreme prejudices to the fore, culminating in the senseless murder and dismemberment of people with the condition.
Torner’s mission for social acceptance leads him on a six year journey, travelling to numerous villages in the Tanzanian region (including his own birthplace) to confront unknown enemies and dispel beliefs that have led to his status as a hunted commodity. Along the way he discovers Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria where 62 albinos reside and forms a society there, taking 15 year old Vedastus Zangule under his wing.
Zangule’s story as well as those of other albino children, highlights the appalling treatment suffered daily. Shielding themselves from verbal and physical abuse, it is their stoic and gentle acceptance of this sort of ‘normality’, that is most disturbing. Most of the children are forced out of school based on prejudices against their intelligence, their appearance or false accusations that their condition is contagious. Torner’s fears that this continual segregation away from the rest of the population is diminishing freedom, independence and acceptance of those with albinism are justified.
As to be expected there are graphic elements to this film, news footage of mutilated corpses and severed limbs appear uncensored, reminding the viewer of the very real fear faced by albino communities. This does not overshadow other elements of the film however, and it is the captivating nature of the characters in the documentary that bring balance and hope to the story. The strength and supportive roles of the women in Torner (his departed mother and his wife) and Zangule’s (his mother who has contracted HIV) lives are incredibly important to their survival, in an increasingly isolating situation. They too carry the consequences and stigma attached to their loved ones and it is easy to see and connect with their internal struggles.
Freelander does a great job of taking a top down approach on an interwoven web of themes stemming from these events. He has an eerie knack of capturing compelling moments without becoming oversentimental, as well as providing some beautifully shot scenery in the process. He manages to tap into an undercurrent of subtle emotional cues in his subjects, which help to build a true picture of the reaching depths of discrimination.
It is also quite uplifting to see the government playing a positive role in quelling these rumours, surprising footage of Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda breaking down in congress (he has adopted three albino children) was quite genuine and heartfelt, as well as the unequivocal agreement from congress as he addressed the issue. So far the government have arrested 228 people, stripped 240 people of their witch doctor/traditional healer licences and held a secret ballot to allow informants to step forward.
Torner is the catalyst for this film having met Freelander at a demonstration in 2007. He embodies the fact that one person can make a difference and he has achieved so much, including instating Albino Day in Africa and climbing Mount Kilamanjaro to spread awareness. The duo will tour the film for 6 months around Tanzania accompanied by a skin cancer specialist and a witch doctor willing to stand up and condemn these practices.
Q&A session with Director Harry Freeland, Activist Josephat Torner and Festival Assistant Director Ariella Gery
Given the desperate poverty of the villagers who trade these limbs for a pittance, it begs the question of the third party selling them on an unknown market for top dollar. ‘In the Shadow of the Sun’ is effective in bringing awareness to a horrific infringement of basic human rights in an engaging, sincere and insightful way. It also emphasises the resilience of the human spirit and the powerful will of humanity in the face of adversity.
REVIEW SCORE: FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE
HRAFF is on tour nationally from Tue 28 May – Thu 6 June for more information on what’s screening near you visit: http://hraff.org.au/
The makers and key protaganists of documentary ‘In the Shadow of the Sun’ joined forces to create charity Standing Voice which aims to stop human rights violations against marginalised groups. To find out more information and how you can help please visit: http://standingvoice.org/