The persecution of people living with albinism condition in South Africa has prompted British film-maker Luke Bradford to put a spotlight on the horrific crimes that are still taking place – in a short film called ‘White Gold’. This film, featuring prominent South African actress and albinism activist Refilwe Modiselle, is getting noticed. It premiered in 2020 at The Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where it won the Best Narrative Short prize, and has won numerous prestigious awards including Best Narrative Short at The African Film Festival and Best Acting at the Global Impact Film Festival. The success of the short film so far means it could be considered for an Oscar. Linda van Tilburg spoke to Luke Bradford about his experience in Africa that prompted him to develop the film and shoot it in South Africa with local actors and she also spoke to Refilwe Modiselle, Africa’s first model with albinism. – Linda van Tilburg
Luke Bradford on his experience in Africa with albinism:
A number of years ago (in 2017), I was shooting a documentary in Tanzania about a missionary couple from Texas that run a charity called 1520 Unreached. It was to set up a sustainable farm that would be run by Tanzanians to benefit locals and part of their work that they identified was a need to do an outreach programme for people living with albinism. There was a huge need in the country where more than 50 000 people are living with albinism. They have all sorts of difficulties with some damage to their skin, problems with their eyesight and problems with persecution under the belief that their body parts will bring good luck if ingested within witchdoctors’ potions. These people literally have a price tag over their head.
On what he’s trying to achieve with White Gold:
One of the women that I was introduced to was a girl called Florence. She had lost both her arms on the command of a witch doctor in her own home. She was held down and both of her arms hacked off with a machete. Thank God, she survived that attack. She didn’t get any medical help until the next day, but she managed to survive. The woman that I met, was just so incredibly gracious and lovely. It made the whole thing harder to take in. How can this happen in today’s society? What I’m trying to do with this narrative drama, is to reach a different audience – a wider audience – and ultimately trigger a debate about this.
On the success of White Gold:
The way that the Oscars and BAFTAs work, is that you need to have won something significant at another festival, a qualifying festival. That’s just what happened with us, with the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. It is the biggest black film festival in the United states. They not only made our film an official selection, but we won best narrative short, which qualifies us for Oscar consideration.
The shortlists and the nominations are early in 2021 and as exciting as that is – as wonderful as that is – really what that stands for is, it’s just a huge key to open a very large door for world attention on this subject matter, which is what we set out to achieve.
On Refilwe Modiselle:
I didn’t know Refilwe at all until we were working with a talent agency called Talent Et Cetera, in Johannesburg. We got a bunch of tapes through for the role of Mansa and Refilwe’s was one of those. I saw her casting tape just like everybody else’s. They were all very good but the wonderful thing about Refilwe’s casting, was that I instantly knew that she was our Mansa. When I saw her, it was such a relief that she was definitely not just capable, but absolutely the right person for that role. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know she had such a high profile. So that was all a bonus when I realised who she was.
On whether there was worry about the stigmatisation of witchdoctors or sangomas:
Honestly no, based on the fact that the story that I’m telling is about the persecution of a highly vulnerable group and the people that they are being persecuted by, are the witch doctors. I understand that there are complex issues surrounding the deep beliefs that go on – the generational beliefs – in witchcraft are complex. Why witch doctors’ henchmen might go off and for $100 commit such a heinous crime on somebody. There are complex social issues around the desperate need for people to have money and I understand that.
However, having any ill feelings towards witchdoctors? Quite frankly, no. Having been at the forefront of seeing what they’re capable of and the lies that they peddle. No. I interviewed a witch doctor as part of my documentary in 2017, but he was someone who had turned away from it. So, he was formerly a witch doctor. He realised the error in his thinking and the lies that he was peddling and he transformed his life and turned his life to Christianity. So, there’s some hope there as well.
On casting local talent:
Hollywood is a business and there is a huge amount of money that is obviously invested into these films. Investors want to know that they’re going to get their money back. The way that it happens is to bring you recognisable names from big market areas such as the West or America. Bringing in recognisable names means that it is more likely to get your investment back and stand a chance of making some money.
That’s the harsh reality of it. That is why it happens. As a filmmaker, I would always want my stories to be as authentic as possible, and that involves using as many authentic actors from the right areas as possible. I absolutely 100% wanted to use local people and local talent, for that reason for White Gold.
Our short film has less commercial constraints on it. A short film doesn’t make any money. We’re not doing it to make money. So, we didn’t have those pressures. I was able to use local talent. But I think it demonstrates – that by doing that – it is absolutely possible to make something that is as high a calibre as shipping in talent from other countries. South Africa is brimming with talent. It felt fantastic to be able to give all of those guys the opportunity that they deserved.
Refilwe Modiselle, the main character in White Gold is a groundbreaker. She became the first woman with albinism on a South African catwalk and is officially recognised as the first model with the condition in Africa. Oprah Winfrey has also put her on her Power List. Refilwe is not somebody who lives in the shade and is not scared to speak up and has recently told South Africans they should not wait for handouts from the government. – Linda van Tilburg
Refilwe Modiselle on her experience playing White Gold character Mansa:
People assume that because I have albinism, it would have become second or third nature to become or play the main character of Mansa (who is a victim of a witch doctor). Mansa and I are completely different people with different experiences. I’m not immune to the difficulties, obviously facing discrimination and being a part of a group that’s been marginalised. But Mansa and Refilwe are completely different.
She challenged me in terms of taking on somebody else’s extreme pain and making it my own and bringing the story to life. Really being convincing to fit in somebody shoes like that. Playing Mansa was absolutely incredible and I usually don’t go for stereotypical albinism stories because I don’t like how the media portrays. I loved White Gold because it touched so many areas. It has so many colours that other people could relate to as well.
On media portrayal of albinism:
I find the term albino offensive because if people were to look at the history and what albino is, albino was actually likened to plants and animals. That’s what a lot of people don’t know. When you say a person in a human form is albino, it’s like you’re taking the human factor away from them. For a long time it’s been used as a derogatory term.
For me personally, it makes the person feel inhumane. It’s a condition and not the embodiment of what a person is. You don’t say a person is cancer. You don’t say a person is diabetes. A person suffers from diabetes. A person lives with cancer. It’s the same principle that you’re living with a condition which is albinism.
On feeling threatened in South Africa:
Albinism killings are a real thing, and it is prevalent. It happens in rural areas. It’s something that we grew up with, knowing that this is something that is present. In my case, I think I was fortunate enough to live my life differently, because as much as I was born in the township, I did not constantly have to watch my back because I lived in a space where I was very protected.
I have an extremely protective family. I only noted it when I was a lot older that this was something that was very real and only realised where my mother’s overprotective nature came from. As a child, you do not know that your mother is being protective of you apart from thinking that it’s the love of a mother.
On the success of White Gold:
I’m so excited. I’m excited at the prospect that a story like this is being told, because for the longest time, we don’t have that kind of representation. For somebody like Luke Bradford to take the story and bring it out on a global scale, it is absolutely incredible. I think it’s a breakthrough for people living with albinism in Africa, in the countries hard-hit by atrocities. The concept of being a part of this movement, because that’s what it is. It’s not just a story. It’s a movement.
It’s the start of creating greater awareness. It’s the start of a greater education. It is the presence of different black representation. I’m absolutely excited at the prospect of potentially being maybe the first person with albinism who is an actress who is going to win an Oscar. The idea boggles my mind and still trying to contain myself of this happening, but God does things in the most mysterious ways. Maybe this is also a way of the breakthrough just happening all around globally to say, let’s look at stories very differently. Let’s explore, a different kind of storytelling that is really out there and also embrace talent in its different forms and race. I am excited.
On misconceptions around people with albinism:
It’s something that’s been there since the beginning of time. People think this is something new. It’s not. There is a misconception that child with albinism brings luck. A child is born into this world with albinism, to believe that there’s something mystical about it. This is something that’s always been there through time. The only difference is that, sometimes when things don’t receive the certain media attention, they tend to be swept under the carpet. It’s always been something that’s swept under the carpet. So, for it to be to be prevalent in the media and given the attention that this is something that is very real, I’m happy that this is happening.
I’m disappointed at the fact that legislature and governments are not playing the role that they should play. Nobody should feel like their lives should be cost or be should disregarded because of the colour of their skin. Because of the condition that they are born in. So for me, I’m very upset that it’s still something that continues to persist and justice isn’t serving the purpose that it’s supposed to serve. They do say that perpetrators are caught and put to justice, but it’s not as quick as important as a rape case. It’s not important as a murder. You know, it’s going to be put at the back barrel of cases, but before it’s given the necessary attention or even then the protection of people with albinism just all around is not valued as much as every other problem in the rest of the world, which is not fair.