Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"It's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong" - An interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson

One of the most stirring and moving films from this year's London Film Festival was a British documentary called Mugabe and the White African, which detailed the extraordinary case of Michael Campbell, a white farmer fighting the Zimbabwean dictator's land reform policy. Shot covertly, in a country where filming is illegal, co-directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have created a film which is both a story of remarkable individual courage, as well as an illuminating insight into life under Mugabe's regime. Now they have made the film, the next step is to get it seen by as wide an audience as possible, and I met the filmmakers during the festival to talk about their plans.

How did you get involved in this story?

Lucy Bailey We both worked together over several years, doing lots of stuff in Africa, most recently for Comic Relief, doing a lot of their appeal films. We were very aware of the Zimbabwe situation because we had spent time with refugees, and it was a story we felt needed telling, but we were looking for a way to do it. We read a tiny snippet about this man taking Mugabe to international court, and we looked at each other and thought that could be our story, one man takes on a president and that president is an evil dictator. So we had this intimate story with the family and through that family you get a much bigger picture of what's been happening inside Zimbabwe, so that's how it came about. We didn't have any connection to white farmers or the family at all prior to that point, and of course we knew it was crazy trying to make a film in a country where filming is illegal, but we were determined to try.

Were there points when you felt you might have to pull out, when you feared for your personal safety?

Andrew Thompson I think this film is perhaps the only glimpse the outside world has of what it's like to be living inside Zimbabwe now. We were always appreciative of how difficult it would be to film inside Zimbabwe, and actually half of the film takes place in Namibia where the hearing is, and we also filmed in South Africa and the UK; but inevitably there was going to be a point where we had to smuggle our way into Zimbabwe, and that was inherent with all sorts of risks. We have both worked in hostile environments before in our TV careers, so we took the experience from those shoots and applied it to Zimbabwe. It is obviously illegal to be inside Zimbabwe as British journalists, so we would smuggle ourselves in, we would use different border crossings every time, we would have cover stories, we would do short, sharp trips; it was always a case of being one step ahead of the police, the CIO and the Zanu PF militias. They were never far behind us, and inevitably once we left the country after one of our trips, there was always a knock on the door of Ben's house, Mike's house or the homes of the workers, asking if they'd seen a white cameraman and sound recordist.

But as well as your own safety, your presence was increasing the danger for those who were working with you. Was it hard to gain people's trust?

LB In terms of the family, their heads were already above the parapet because of the court case. We were quite limited in terms of who we could work with, because anyone who spoke out on camera was essentially putting their lives at risk.

AT There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera. It's incredibly dangerous to speak out against someone like Mugabe. This is a man that still abducts and tortures his political opponents, so he wouldn't think twice about doing that to ordinary citizens. Mike and Ben have always courted publicity, and they say at the beginning of the film that if Mugabe wants to come and shoot us he can come and shoot us, but it will have to take place in front of the glare of the world's media. If they can use this case to shine a spotlight on what's going on in Zimbabwe, then that's how they want it to be used. Even if it's a great personal danger to themselves, it's a price worth paying if it tells the story of what's going on so the world wakes up.

LB Ben said very early on to us that he believes publicity is the very soul of justice, and by the fact that we've told their story, now you guys can write about the story, and we can make justice happen. As filmmakers, you have great power, and if you use that power well it can make a difference. We're trying to get some outreach with the film, particularly with the SADC (South African Development Community) nations so they can see what this human rights court is all about. It's critical in terms of developing a human rights culture in southern Africa, and the film can open doors because it lets people see what's going on. It's different to a news report that you read about, and the next piece of news replaces it, because the film stays with you on an emotional level and has an impact that resonates. We don't have the resources but we're hoping to get them, so we can really get the film out there and make a difference.

AT Obviously, it was always our ambition to make a good film, but it was always our promise to Mike and Ben and the farm workers that we would use this film, to the best of our ability, to effect real change in Zimbabwe. If we can get this film in front of the Houses of Parliament here in the UK, at the UN or in Brussels, we can alert the attention of policy makers who are in a position of power to make a real difference to those poor people in Zimbabwe. As filmmakers that's all we ever set out to achieve. Right now, we are really desperate for funds and for a third party partner to come on board and help us do that.

What do you think your chances are of getting a response from the government, given their previous record on Zimbabwe?

AT I think the west is in a tricky situation, and I don't think anyone really knows how to handle Zimbabwe. Other African leaders seem loathe to speak out against one of their own, and the west appear to be sitting on their hands, rather than being labelled racist or neo-colonialist if they attack the regime. Subsequently, nothing happens, and that's part of what drew us to Mike, Ben and their family, because they are the only ones who have drawn a line in the sand and taken Mugabe on, and it has cost them hugely.

That's what I found so inspiring about Ben and Mike, the fact that they are standing there alone with no support.

LB Exactly, and that's why the film is good, because it makes the audience question what would they do, and how far would they go for what they believe in. You don't have to be interested in Zimbabwe or politics for this film to appeal to you, because it's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong.

The other thing I found remarkable about them is how unflappable they are. No matter what happens to them, they just respond with the same quiet determination and strength.

LB It's just an incredible dignity. They're so proud, dignified and gracious, and they care so much for their country, because they're not doing it for themselves, they're doing it on behalf of everyone.

What is their current situation, both in terms of the court case and their living situation?

AT Mike is living in a safe house in Harare with friends, and Ben, the kids and Laura are also in a safe house with friends. I mean, all the clothes Ben was wearing last night were borrowed, and they have literally lost everything. They briefly managed to re-house the farm workers on one of the farms that was left standing after the fire, but now Mugabe's henchmen have burned that down as well, so these people remain homeless and every time they do go somewhere else, Mugabe catches up with them very quickly. They are all marked men.

And what about their case?

AT It has ground to a halt, legally.

LB It has been referred up to the SADC summit, but at the last summit they didn't discuss it, because everyone is turning a blind eye.

AT It has rather conveniently been swept under the carpet. That is why we are so desperate for support, because we ourselves funded Lucy to go out and do some private screenings in Botswana and South Africa ahead of that summit, to try and raise awareness of this serious issue. Of course, when the summit comes around, under the carpet it goes. No one wants to deal with the Mugabe question, which is why we would love this film have the widest release possible, to get it released across the fourteen nations of southern Africa, to get people insisting on real change.