I honestly didn’t want to be moved by the documentary Mugabe and the White African. Even the title is dubious. And yet this synthesis of reportage and human drama (the first full length feature from Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey) is every bit as stirring as its title is deflating.
The subject of the film is that most unsympathetic yet lionised of Africans – the post-colonial white man. Having known many white South Africans and Zimbabweans during my years living in England, and finding most of them (at best) in possession of a childlike naivety towards issues of race, I approached Mugabe and the White African with some trepidation.
An inordinate amount of column inches and airtime have of course been invested in exposing the brutality of Robert Mugabe’s regime in recent years. We all shake our heads and tut about the economic and social breakdown of this resource-rich and potentially affluent nation. We are disgusted by the political corruption of the country's deluded old megalomaniac of a president and, of course, repulsed at the dispossession of the established white landowners in Zimbabwe. We may even be aware that these farms formed an economic bedrock for the nation.
These white farmers chose to stay on their vast tracts of land after white Rhodesia become majority rule Zimbabwe back in 1980. In this context, Mugabe’s latter-day Plantation has caused sports people to agonise about games of cricket and career politicians to wring sweaty palms in moral quandary.
The more vigilant and cynical newshound would ask whether we would be quite so riled up about Robert Mugabe’s undoubtedly noxious smash and grab if it was simply a ‘black on black’ issue? The truth about Zimbabwe, like most things, is a lot more complex, unpleasant and intractable than the bite-sized chunks packaged by the media for our convenience suggest.
What Mugabe and the White African does is help to humanise proceedings. It does so by getting to the very heart of the Sky News headline.
It’s the story of 75-year-old Michael Campbell, a genial, grizzled old timer, one of a few hundred white farmers left in Zimbabwe. He has owned the land he lives on for 30 years, employs 500 local black workers and lives on his farmstead with his wife Angela, daughter Laura and son-in-law, the insanely optimistic Ben Freeth and their children.
Mike, as the head of the household, has been struggling on in spite of repeated warnings by Zanu-PF officials and their assorted militia to move on. Filmed covertly a lot of the time (for fear of arrest) we follow Mike and his family as, against the backdrop of the notorious 2008 Zimbabwe elections, they legally challenge Mugabe’s ‘Land Reform’ program, which ostensibly redistributes white-owned land to the poor black peasant majority.
In one scene, the list of individuals with a claim on white farms reads like a Zimbabwean who’s who: singers, politician’s girlfriends, high court judges with nary a dispossessed peasant in sight. Mike and his family, particularly Ben, are consistently upbeat, convinced that their cause is just.
There are many heart-stopping moments, as the Campbell's struggle to hold on to their land. In a particularly revealing scene we see a local government minister’s son hanging around with his ‘crew’ in a snazzy and expensive new jeep harassing Ben. 'We’ve had enough of you fellows,' he remarks, adding, 'This land is for the poor Africans. You are not Africans.'
This young man, who is clearly more used to shooting pheasant than emancipating peasants, then goes on to castigate Ben for his kind being the reason that his father’s assets in the States are frozen – a result of international sanctions on Zimbabwe.
It’s a comical absurdity that Swift would have balked at and betrays a number of depressing things about the country: the hypocrisy of many of those leading the Land Reform and their utter disingenuousness about real wealth distribution, not to mention the transparently cynical and lazy scapegoating by the government of whites in general.
What impresses throughout is the Campbell family’s deep determination to be perceived as Africans first and foremost and as such, their dogged determination to keep fighting for what they fervently believe is their land in the face of mounting isolation and often unpleasant duress.
We witness their frequent appearances in an international court thousands of miles away in Namibia, only for the case to be constantly deferred with a series of pathetic and not very legal excuses by Mugabe’s cohort of lawyers.
It’s painful and heartbreaking to watch these determined and good natured people constantly being buffeted by fates malign and persistent. When it is revealed that the family have been beaten to a pulp by a militia just weeks before the final date for their hearing in Namibia, it is truly, indescribably appalling. Later, Ben - wheelchair bound, with fractured skull bound tightly - defiantly makes for the final hearing while Mike and Angela lie in adjoining beds in Harare, barely recognisable as human beings.
There are many scenes of the Campbells interacting with each other, their staff, their adversaries or even the camera and throughout, they are revealed to have an unyielding sense of moral rectitude. The filmmakers let the family do the talking, whilst showing us enough of the Zimbabwean countryside to induce in the viewer a kind of awed ambivalence that such idyllic surrounds can be so pregnant with violence and discord.
What isn’t really examined is the socio-political climate that led to the economic collapse in Zimbabwe, and what Mike and Ben think about genuine, fair and productive redistribution of the land for the benefit of the majority.
While I may not agree with the Campbell family’s world view, one cannot help but be moved by their integrity, determination and absolute affinity for the land. They possess a genuine sense of responsibility, even love for their workers. Certainly, they seem to care more about improving the lot of the peasant class around them than the bête noire silently stalking this film, a man who - in the final dreadful irony - can these days be more closely aligned to the disgusting regime of Rhodesia-era Ian Smith than any white farmer.
It’s testimony to the Campbells and to the filmmakers that one leaves the cinema desperate for a happy ending. That doesn’t come, but you are left with the knowledge that they’re still fighting on – a truly mind-boggling act of defiance – especially so when you realise that they could all so easily take off and settle in England tomorrow.
Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson obviously have a clear sympathy for the subject, but it is disappointing that most of the (few) black characters we see are either thuggish, sullenly acquiescent or fearful. Also, perhaps understandably, no real thoughts or opinions are delivered to camera by any of the black Zimbabwean on the Campbell farm, leaving us none the wiser as to their fate or feelings.
Nevertheless, Mugabe and the White African is a worthwhile and moving film about a hardworking and brave white African family who find themselves locked between the death-throes of an unjust, centuries-old hegemony and the still-birth of an unfair and unloving new society. It makes one both fascinated about the history and fearful for the future of this beautiful and oft-betrayed country.
Mugabe and the White African runs in the QFT from February 5-10. Book tickets and watch a trailer here.