“Lazarus,” about the musician Lazarus Chigwandali, is visually compelling, with depictions of Malawi, East Africans with albinism, headlines about the crisis, and survivors of violent attacks.
The half-hour documentary “Lazarus,” directed by David Darg and produced by Bryn Mooser, follows the Malawian musician Lazarus Chigwandali, who performs as Lazarus, on his rise from street busking to international recognition and activism—a process that the filmmakers and their friends helped instigate. Lazarus was born with albinism, which has been widely misunderstood, and stigmatized, in sub-Saharan East Africa. As a newborn, he says, he “would cry and cry” in the harsh sun with his parents as they worked the fields. “They named me Lazarus, the leper.” Life in East Africa for people with albinism can be dangerous. Ikponwosa Ero, the U.N. independent expert on albinism and human rights, who has albinism herself, says in the film, “There are beliefs that the body parts of persons with albinism can be used in witchcraft rituals and potions to achieve good luck, wealth, win elections.” Kidnapping and violence are fuelled by a lucrative black market; Lazarus tells a story about a near-miss of his own with a would-be trafficker. Lazarus, for whom busking was once a main source of income, aims to encourage understanding about people with albinism through his music, as does the film. Mooser told me, “If we can make Lazarus a star—and people start looking up to him, rather than looking down at him—that’ll be an incredible thing.”
Lazarus’s music is inviting and immediately appealing. As the film begins, we see him in his home town of Lilongwe. He sits on a portable bench, ties some jangling percussion instruments to his ankles, picks up his homemade canjo (a banjo made from a can, in this case incorporating a discarded oil can, a found-wood neck, hand-hewn tuning pegs, and strings made from salvaged bicycle-brake cable), and starts to sing and play, thwacking his bare heel against the bench. The music is warmly rousing, combining elements of traditional Malawian music, punk, and folk, with lyrics in Chichewa. Lazarus’s canjo produces a distinctive, sometimes dissonant, sound. Local kids surround him to listen.
The longtime collaborators Darg and Mooser first learned about Lazarus when they watched a viral video of him performing in the street. The two met in 2010, when they were both doing relief work in Haiti after the earthquake, and have made several films together. In 2012, they founded an immersive-media-production company called RYOT, which specializes in documentaries and virtual-reality programs. (“It was very powerful to watch people be transported to a broken street in Kathmandu and then take off the headset crying and saying, ‘Hey, how do I help?’ ” Mooser told me.) In 2014, their short “Body Team 12,” about the Ebola epidemic, was nominated for an Oscar, as was, this year, “Lifeboat,” which they and RYOT helped produce. In 2017, after selling RYOT, Darg and Mooser travelled to Senegal with Mumford & Sons, who were playing a concert with the Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal. There, they spent time with their friend Johan Hugo, a music producer who works with the bands. “Somebody started passing around this video that was on WhatsApp, of Lazarus busking on the street,” Mooser said. “Marcus Mumford, the singer, and Ben Lovett, the piano player, were just, like, ‘This is amazing.’ And Johan said, ‘Man, we should make a record.’ And David and I said, ‘We should make a documentary.’ ” (Lovett contributes to the movie’s score; Madonna is an executive producer.) Mooser recently launched a new documentary-and-television studio, XTR, and “Lazarus” became one of its first projects.
Lazarus was an inspiring figure, Darg said. “It’s a common theme of mine to look for underreported crises, or stories within disasters or emergencies that could provide a bit of hope,” he told me. “I was very keen to see what could be done around the albinism crisis.” But Darg was initially drawn to Lazarus’s music—“this amazing sound that you could only get from that combination of homemade recycled trash.”
“Lazarus” is visually compelling, with depictions of rural and urban Malawi, East African people with albinism, headlines about the crisis, and survivors of violent attacks. Early on, Lazarus and his family live in a humble house—“the type of house that a beggar could afford,” Darg told me, “with barely a lock on the door”—on the outskirts of town. Lazarus’s wife, Gertrude Chigwandali, talks about how people have mocked her for marrying him; they have three sons, two of whom have albinism. “When my children play outside, I follow them everywhere, and I’m always afraid, because they’re always in danger,” she says. We get to know Lazarus through hearing his music and watching him shop for bright-green African fabric for a custom suit (“Having a tailored suit will look stunning,” he says), shoot a music video for his rollicking song “Ndife Alendo” (“He’s talking about stomping the devil,” the music promoter Clem Kwizombe says), and record an album with Hugo outside Lazarus’s house. Clapping, dancing kids gather around, and Hugo explains part of Lazarus’s process. “He has to put water on his tuning pegs to get them to swell a little bit extra so they can actually get the grip that’s needed to hold the string,” he says.
Throughout, Lazarus is clear about his mission. “Songs must tell a story,” he says. “So, when people sing the song, they will hear the story, and they will hear the meaning in the words and how it felt through the music. I will continue making music about what it means to be a person living with albinism so that maybe all the violence can be ended through my music.” By the end, he’s getting closer to achieving his aim: he plays a big festival called Lake of Stars, in Malawi. (“Lazarus is wearing his first artist wristband,” Hugo says.) We see Lazarus surrounded by enthusiastic crowds and borne aloft in a procession of masked dancers. As the film concludes, Lazarus travels to New York: the Tribeca Film Festival, the United Nations, Times Square. In the credits, he’s at a venue in Red Hook, Brooklyn, performing with members of Bon Iver and the National. By that point, Lazarus has a new canjo, made from a new oil can, and, by now, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign organized by the filmmakers, he and his family have a new house. But one thing hasn’t changed: wherever the stage, whatever the outfit, Lazarus is as happily confident in his musicianship as he was when he was in Lilongwe, on his portable bench.