There are a lot of movies where the bad guy is an albino. How and why being an albino became an international indicator for predilection to commit evil, I don’t know, but after watching The Boy from Geita, what I do know is that many people with albinism in Africa are living in their own horror movies, ones in which they’re the victims.
A young Tanzanian boy named Adam knows something about being treated like a monster. Despite the fact that albinism has an occurrence rate of something like 1 in 2,000 in Tanzania, anyone afflicted with it is considered a pariah in their community. Superstition abounds as people look at Adam, his brother, and thousands like them as “ghosts” or otherwise “cursed.” But there’s something more insidious about the treatment of albinos in Africa, a dark turn that takes Adam on a journey to Canada and back when he falls victim to a crime that can only be described as barbaric.
Befitting the monstrous circumstances, director Vic Sarin stages re-creations of the events that befell Adam and another woman named Mariam, in what could be best described as the aesthetic of a horror movie. In the dead of night, men entered their homes, and armed with machetes they hacked off their limbs. Mariam lost both of her arms, and Adam had his left arm sliced and lost several fingers on his right hand.
What could this possibly be in aid of? In a word: money. One finger from someone afflicted with albinism fetches between $1,000 and $2,000 on the black market, because local witch doctors need the parts in order to cast their most powerful spells. But before you think we’ve fallen into some movie called African Horror Story, there are political implications, too. The Tanzanian government tried to hammer down on these types of crimes by banning the practice of witch doctoring, but the ban was lifted a month before a pivotal election in 2007. Some take this as a sign of the great magical power of the witch doctors, but considering the money involved, it’s probably more practical to say that politics is politics.
The Boy From Geita is much more a personal story than a political one, but the international news coverage of the murder of albinos in Tanzania, which is about 50 in two years and increasing after a brief lull, gets the attention of Peter Ash. Peter is unique for two reasons, he’s a successful Vancouver businessman and he is himself an albino. A warm and well-spoken man, Peter travels to Tanzania to meet Adam and arranges for the boy to come to Vancouver for surgery to restore use of his right hand so that he might be able to writer and go to school.
Sarin’s cameras get remarkable access to film the surgery, so the easily squeamish will likely want to avert their eyes during those scenes, although the grossness is fleeting. Consciously though, the director’s trying to make the pain and perseverance of Adam palpable since the vast majority of the people who fall victim to what’s essentially a hate crime don’t have access to this kind of surgery. Obviously, Sarin also wants to give the doctors their due since everything, from their time to the use of the operating room, was donated free of charge.
Considering The Boy from Geita and its brisk 80 minute running time, it manages to be all things to all people looking for insight into the issue of being an albino in Africa. There’s the cultural perspective, the political problems and the personal struggles. Sarin manages to make the movie a triple threat that allows the three concerns to flow into each other and paint a complete picture of not just Adam’s attack and recovery, but the sad background that tells you how such a thing happens in the first place. Surprisingly though, there’s no anger, just compassion, and even though these attacks sound like something done in the distant past, courage in the face of tragedy triumphs over injustice and revenge.
The film’s final moments take place in the Jelly school, a safe home for kids with albinism. Peter, as Santa Claus, hands out gifts with the help of a masked helper, who is revealed at the end to be Adam, and in a moment that’s sure to bring down the house, Adam and his brother are re-united. Love is stronger than hate, even when you’ve been through what these boys have been through, and that’s a message that transcends, no matter the pigmentation of your skin.
The Boy from Geita uses a deeply personal point of view, and an odd Canadian connection, to draw attention to the treatment of albinos in Africa, and does so beautifully.