Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review - Mugabe and the White African

How do you take on a dictator? In Mugabe and the White African, we are introduced to a family who have spent years doing just that. In the year 2000, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe instigated a land reform policy aimed at removing all white farmers from the country, under the guise of handing the land back to the black population. In reality, though, Mugabe's ambitions were nowhere near as altruistic, and the land he claimed back in such an aggressive fashion has instead gone straight into the hands of his cronies – relations, ministers and VIPs. They are not farmers, they are asset-strippers, and under Mugabe's leadership, Zimbabwe has been transformed from the "Breadbasket of Africa" to an economic and agricultural wasteland.

Michael Campbell is one of the men who was targeted by the land reform policy, but he wasn't about to give up his farm without a fight. He bought the Mount Carmel farm in 1974 and spent over twenty years paying back the loan until he owned it free and clear. It was at this point that Mugabe decided land deeds mean nothing, and the farm the Campbells had lived and worked on for decades now belonged to him. Mugabe and the White African, a powerful new documentary directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, follows Campbell and his son-in-law Ben Freeth as they pursue their case against the government, suffering constant intimidation and threats of violence as they do so. They are remarkable and inspiring figures, who draw upon their faith and their sense of family unity to withstand the incredible pressure their actions have brought upon them. Even when Michael and Ben are abducted and viciously beaten (along with Michael's wife, in one of the film's most shocking passages), they don't respond with anger or thoughts of revenge, just a quiet determination to plough forward in their fight for justice. It's impossible to overstate the courage on display here.

The courage displayed by the filmmakers deserves to be commended too. Filming is illegal in Zimbabwe, punishable by imprisonment or worse, so Thompson and Bailey had to employ covert tactics to shoot the footage they needed, looking over their shoulders throughout to stay one step ahead of the security forces. Despite these restrictions, the standard of their camerawork is extremely impressive, and the focused editing by Tim Lovell ensures the film maintains a compelling dramatic tension. Thankfully, however, the filmmakers seem to recognise the inherent human drama this story carries, and they avoid any temptation to manipulate the film's emotional impact, directing in an admirably clear and direct fashion. What emerges is a rare and eye-opening glimpse of life in Zimbabwe, with the devastating widespread impact of Mugabe's rule becoming horribly clear.

Mugabe and the White African is not simply the story of one white family fighting for what they own; the film shows us how resistance put up by Campbell and Freeth has implications for all of their countrymen, black or white. In one deeply moving scene, we see another white family saying goodbye to their home, but also saying goodbye to the black Zimbabweans who have lived and worked with them for decades, many of whom effectively feel like family. They are also losing their homes, their livelihood and their security, and one wonders what fate lies ahead for them when all of the farmers are driven away, and the land is left to ruin. The human rights of every Zimbabwean are on the line.

That's why this film feels so important. Mugabe and the White African is cry for help from a country without laws and without democracy. Michael Campbell and Ben Freeth have taken this fight as far as they can, suffering horrific pain and losing almost everything in the process, and now they are relying on this astonishing documentary to bring their story to a wider audience; perhaps to people who have the power to offer the assistance they so desperately need. Mugabe and the White African is a film that forces us to confront the Mugabe problem, and to ask ourselves serious questions about what must be done in response. It has the gripping intensity of a thriller, and it's one of the most emotionally overwhelming experiences I've had in a cinema this year. For these reasons and more, it is essential viewing.

Read my interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson here.