By their very nature, documentary films live and die by the power of the stories they tell. Mugabe And The White African tells a story of the most powerful kind.
It’s Not Always Black and White by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Due to a reporting ban in Zimbabwe, the human stories of life in the ravaged southern African country are rarely given the chance to reach a wider audience. But thanks to the extreme personal risks taken by filmmakers Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, Mugabe and the White African is an opportunity to glimpse behind that veil. Much of it was filmed covertly with equipment smuggled into the country. Few debuts can have been so bravely wrought.
The film centres on the 3,000-acre farm known as Mount Carmel, its owner Mike Campbell and his son-in-law Ben. A year after finally having paid off the 20-year loan he took out to buy it, Mike’s farm becomes the subject of the Mugabe government’s land redistribution scheme. In these post-colonial times, white-owned farms across the country have been brutally requisitioned using intimidation and violence, supposedly to return the land to the black majority. Fuelled by the cancellation of a legitimately acquired title deed, concern for the 500 workers whose livelihoods are supported by the farm, and the powerful motivation that, as white Africans, they have nowhere else to go, Mike and Ben turn to an international human rights court in Namibia to fight for their farm. In the first case of its kind, a claim is submitted against Mugabe and the Zimbabwean government alleging unfair eviction and discrimination based on racist principles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more to this seemingly racially motivated land redistribution than meets the eye. The requisitioned land is not to be returned to black peasants, allowing them to flourish on the fertile soil that was once the breadbasket of Africa. Rather, it has been gifted to Mugabe’s cronies, high-ranking Zanu PF officials and their hangers-on.
Intimidation of the Campbell family is constant and aggressive. Mount Carmel is visited by Peter Chamada, a ministerial son, who has earmarked it for himself. In an angry confrontation, filmed by Ben on a small hand-held camera left for him by Thompson, the depth of feeling swiftly becomes apparent. Ben asks how Chamada can claim that the land will be used by black peasants when each time he comes to eye-up the farm he is driving a brand new car. His response is unequivocal “We want you out. I will sleep here until you are out. We want to deal with friendlier people – the Chinamen, the Indians. We don’t want anything to do with you [white] people.”
In some of the film’s lighter moments Mike shows he is clearly a man with a sense of irony. On hearing that a band of armed farm-invaders has been spotted in his maize fields late at night he refuses to set out in search of them until he has finished his nightcap. Also, during a visit to Windhoek for the umpteenth trial postponement, Mike and Ben find themselves driving along Robert Mugabe Avenue. “I might have a heart attack and I don’t want to die on a street with that name”, Mike jokes. The audience is left pondering the rights and wrongs of such a street name in the capital of a neighbouring country.
What elevates the film above bland factual portrayal is the sensitive and heart-felt treatment of the human struggle at its centre. Having cut their teeth making Comic Relief appeal videos, Thompson and Bailey bring out the frailty of the Campbell family, as well as their absolute resolve in the face of apparent calamity. The simmering threat of violence erupts a matter of days before the final court hearing – surely not coincidental. Mike, his wife Angela, and Ben are gruesomely beaten and lucky to be alive. Seventy-five year old Mike remains defiant that their fight will continue, even as he lies in his hospital bed barely able to lift his swollen, bandage-swaddled head up from the pillow to look into the camera. He is not able to make the trip to Namibia. Ben is, but in a wheelchair.
At the trial, the defence collapses. The government officials defending the case walk out of the court, prompting one of Campbell’s legal team to observe, “There is no rule of law in Zimbabwe.” At the film’s climax the elation felt by all is uplifting, one truly feels the relief of the family who have trusted in God and little more than their own determination to gain victory.
Crucially, however, the credits reveal that the most recent news to come out of Zimbabwe is far from positive. Regulations prohibiting white-owned businesses and investment in certain sectors (hairdressing, advertising etc.) were passed just last week, leading one to strongly question where Zimbabwe’s increasing isolation at the hands of Robert Mugabe will leave this country’s desperate people.
If this beautifully crafted, sensitive documentary succeeds at least in keeping the plight of Zimbabwe’s citizens, black and white, at the forefront of Western consciousness, then the personal risks involved in the making of this film must surely have been worth it.