Can You See Us?–Before Your Eyes
The first full-length Zambian movie released on Netflix (August 27), Can You See Us? is inspired by the life of John Chiti, a popular international singer, who is albino. (The main character is named Joseph in the film, not John.)
When Chama gives birth to Joseph, his father rejects him and his mother. Chama is thrown out of her home with nowhere to go. A compassionate taxi driver Martin (Kondwani Elliot Zulu) marries her and adopts Joseph as his son. The young family’s life becomes more and more difficult. As an albino child, Joseph must navigate a childhood of bullying. Tragic and violent superstitions about being cursed, he is labeled a “mwabi” or maggot.
In this coming-of-age drama, Joseph’s life is precarious. He barely survives a vicious attack by profiteers. Despite this, Joseph’s loving stepfather soothes him, yet advises him about the reality he faces: –”What people do not understand, they fear and what they fear, they seek to destroy.” Joseph responds: “I will make them understand me,”
In the midst of fierce prejudice, Joseph (Thabo Kaamba) is determined to make friends. The Madman (Robert Nyirenda), who is another ostracized villager, teaches Joseph how to play the guitar and to rise above bullying and discrimination. His classmate Sharon becomes a good and loyal friend. At prep school, financed by his now-guilt-ridden father, Joseph becomes widely admired for his beautiful singing voice and guitar skills.
Thabo Kaamba, who plays Joseph as a child, is a young girl actor portraying Joseph throughout most of Can You See Us? Astonishing in her first role, Kaamba is an unforgettable tour-de-force, evoking both the innocence of a young victim who doesn’t understand cruelty and the strength required to retain one’s courage and openness to friendship as well as forgiveness.
As an albino child herself, Thabo Kaamba’s portrayal of Joseph is certainly partly girded by her own personal experience in real life. Kondwani Elliot Zulu, portraying Martin (Joseph’s stepfather and Chama’s second husband), steals every scene he is in too, not only for the heart-tugging emotions, but also as a standout sympathetic character that is sorely needed for the character of Joseph to survive the turbulence in his young life.
Although the story has an unsatisfying “on-the-nose” ending, Can You See Us? is an eye-opening portal into the world of albinos, life in the Zambian countryside, and raising awareness of difference and tolerance.
Note 1: John Chiti is not only one of Zambia’s most popular musicians, but also an activist for people with albinism. He is founder and director of the Albino Foundation of Zambia.
Note 2: Cheti released a track titled “Coronavirus,” in 2020 about the pandemic’s ignoring people with disabilities who need care. https://decider.com/2023/08/28/can-you-see-us-true-story-john-chiti-netflix/
Note 3: The UN and Amnesty International estimate that the murder of albino children for their body parts is estimated to be in the thousands. Murderers sell the body parts to village healers in the belief that great wealth, power or sexual potency will occur as well as immediate cures for incurable diseases. This profiteering was not clearly stated in the movie.