Mugabe and the White African
Reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Directors: Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson. Documentary about the violent redistribution of land in Zimbabwe under dictator Robert Mugabe, and one white family's efforts to protect their farm through a formal tribunal.
Twitter Capsule: Complex, urgent story badly marred by makers' insistence on sentiment over inquiry. See it, though.

Photo © 2009 Arturi Films/Explore Films/First Run Features
In a very short essay called "Can the Present-Day World Be Reproduced by Means of Theatre?" Bertolt Brecht offers the pithy and trenchant axiom that you can't understand the rules of tennis if you're fixed to the point of view of the ball. This line of wisdom reverberates almost constantly during the documentary Mugabe and the White African, a textbook example of a film I think everyone should see even though I also think it fails its subject in important ways and misuses its vérité form rather badly. Often, no one wants more from a documentary than lucidly narrativized exposure to a world they don't know anything about, or one they know about but are trying to understand better. On most of those grounds, it would be thoughtless and maybe heartless to quibble with Mugabe, not just because it's the only documentary to have surfaced in recent years from the carceral, North Korea-like ban on visual media in Zimbabwe, but because the predicament at its heart is a very urgent one, accumulating more and more personal stakes as the film unfolds. Mike Campbell, 75 years old, is a white farmer who had no sooner completed the payments he began making in 1974 than the administration of notorious dictator Robert Mugabe voided the deed, impounded the land, and "redistributed" it to the son of a political ally. This is no anomaly and is in fact close to a tenet of government, not only explaining how the white population of Zimbabwe has dwindled to less than 10% of what it was when Mugabe took power but helping to account for this bounteous country's staggering collapse into poverty, unemployment, and barely fathomable inflation. For those of you just tuning in, in August 2008, a "new" Zimbabwean dollar was issued, equal in value to ten billion Zimbabwean dollars under the previous system. Less than six months later, that new currency was already so worthless that yet another recalibrated dollar was introduced, which was worth one trillion of the already-reweighted dollars; put differently, a Zimbabwean dollar in winter 2008 was worth one sextillionth of a dollar in winter 2009. And yes, I'm deriving these figures from Wikipedia, not—this is important—from the movie, which tends to pass over details like this, either presuming our well-versedness or perhaps worried that the true disparities between "have"s and "have not"s will relocate our deepest sympathies elsewhere than where the film most wants to attach them.

Please bear that one-sextillionth figure in mind, if you can even conceive of it at all, as we proceed. Mike Campbell, upon being told that he had to cede his home and his livelihood to an arbitrary and unskilled designee, despite having paid his bills to the corrupted, hollowly "nationalist" regime that was now seizing it, takes his case to court, specifically under a tribunal operated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), headquarted in barely adjacent Namibia. Note that Robert Mugabe has so absorbed the nation as his personal possession—we hear him in a campaign speech thundering, "Zimbabwe is mine!"—that he, not the republic, is listed as the defendant of record. While the case straggles on, with Mugabe's lawyers cruising to the courthouse in luxury vehicles only to request (and receive) grants of postponement due to "lack of resources," Campbell and other white landowners like him are targets of hostile visitors and leering loiterers during the day, and violent, machete-wielding goon squads at night. Taking time to prosecute the case isn't just dragging out a legal imbroglio, it's extending their vulnerability to serious harm, even death. The police and other civic infrastructures are utterly ineffectual, when they even exist. Neighbors are marauded by the "new owners" of their properties. The lucky ones are only glared at while they decamp; the less fortunate are beaten within an inch of their lives while the inheritors of their estates spitefully set them ablaze.

Mugabe and the White African offers a direct, bravely and necessarily covert chronicle of the contrapuntally serene landscape over which these tensions mount. The movie has thriller scenes, legal climaxes, tearful farewells, and family profiles, which recurringly take the shape, literally, of sun-dappled long shots of blond children cavorting in grassy meadows. We'll call this the first sign of trouble, but Mugabe and the White African nonetheless packs all the elements of a tense, outraging, human-sized, ripped-from-the-headlines story, borrowing vestiges from many of the multiplex's favorite genres. Its protagonists, 75-year-old Mike and his 44-year-old son-in-law Ben Freeth, seem decent and warm, to stay nothing of superhumanly resolute, and it is not to be held against Ben that he tends to laugh nervously whenever he talks to his black employees, and that it's one of the smugger laughs you've ever heard. He probably doesn't mean it, though you may start to turn against the character after the second or third scene in which he explains the problems of Zimbabwe to a black Zimbabwean, who is never so much as privileged with a reply. If this happens, though, you'll certainly feel horribly bad about it when Mugabe and the White African takes its most sudden and horrible turn, as the filmmakers learn while out of the country that Ben, Mike, and Mike's wife Angela have all been bludgeoned to the brink of death by a band of men intent on teaching a lesson. These men tried to force the elderly Angela into signing a pledge that she would renounce her family's claim on the land, shoving a red-hot implement down her throat as part of their unsuccessful intimidation. They pummeled Ben's head so badly he needs brain surgery. They broke all ten of Mike's fingers, crippling him so severely that he can't even be driven to his own court date.

Mugabe and the White African tells a story I won't soon forget, and by that standard it deserves acclaim and, even more importantly, deserves to be seen by almost everybody. But where it is seen, I hope it will be debated, and as stirring and urgent as the Campbells' story is, it is not exclusively or uncomplicatedly their story. The filmmakers miss this essential point so badly that Mugabe deserves to be scrutinized as much as it is celebrated, and maybe more so. The film is a conduit to essential information, but the problem isn't simply that directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson narrow their focus too exclusively on the Campbells, failing to outfit that core material with sufficient embellishments. Worse, Mugabe and the White African embraces almost Harriet Beecher Stowe levels of sentimentalizing institutional oppression, styling itself so relentlessly as a David-and-Goliath story, and trusting so fully that its Goliath is irredeemable (as indeed he probably is) that they short-change their characters, more than once insult their audience, and obscure huge portions of the narrative's essence.

Every way in which Mugabe and the White African could have been richer or more responsible comes outfitted with a reason you're inclined to extend benefit of the doubt. It really is a blight that you can live for 75 years in a country and be stripped of any claim as a legitimate citizen, so you try not to be too embarrassed by the filmmaker's golden-lit shots of the Campbell-Freeth clan, wondering why the black Zimbabweans not only get virtually no opportunities to speak for themselves, but are in fact often ventriloquized or lectured by their employer-guardians. One of the first scenes in the film shows Ben explaining to a black, silent employee (I stress, employee) about how awful it is that white identity has been so discounted under Mugabe. The problem isn't that this is untrue but that Mugabe and the White African doesn't seem to register that the idea demands more nuance, especially as expressed in this way between these people. The same problem is only exacerbated when it occurs to no one to press Ben on his envelope-pushing naïveté asking, "Why is it possible to stand tall as a white American, a white European, a white Australian, but not a white African?" He may well be the victim here of careless editing: he may be making a point about the colonial, enslaving, and eugenic legacies of whites on all of those continents, but the way his testimony is framed, it sounds like he simply can't understand how radical black nationalism—even in the completely debased and bloodthirsty form that Mugabe imposes—could possibly gain any affective foothold in the former Rhodesia. That decolonization and the ideologies that accompanied it, for better and worse, trace a crucially different course in Africa than elsewhere, and that a minority white population is inevitably in a different spot than the Anglos who wrested ownership of Australia and much of North America and, certainly to our shame and chagrin, never let it go. Ben is not participating in a "better" or a "worse" story, but it's not at all the same story, and his rhetorical expostulations about it all but amputate the film's sense of really reckoning with the thickness and source of Zimbabwe's problems, instead of just styling them into a "Why me," barbarians-at-the-gates vérité thriller.

Meanwhile, a neighbor of Ben's, a middle-aged white woman, understandably weeps as her copious antique furniture is carted out of the sizable home in which she was born, and she pines that, had the occupiers waited just one more year to displace her, she could have claimed a full century of residence for her family on this ground. To invalidate her emotional claims would be gutless and cheap, but though the movie pays frequent lip-service to the plight of the hundreds of black workers whose lives will be pulverized by the routing of white, wage-paying, food-growing landowners, Mugabe and the White African still can't manifest any real urge to speak with one of these black Africans on the brink. The title becomes an uncomfortably literal descriptor of the dramatis personae. It may be a sensitive issue to expose the illicit camera equipment to people the filmmakers know less well, since the equipment's very presence—quite openly exposed, it seems, during the sequence I'm describing—could elicit judicial if not corporeal retributions. And so you listen to this woman detour from her own poignant tale to inform us of the pain of her employee (servant?) Belinda, who briefly cracks the film with her own tearful fears of ruin and vulnerability, and her grief over her recently deceased mother, to which the white woman responds, in tears of her own, "You shouldn't worry about that... There, there..." Why shouldn't Belinda worry about that? It's the editing, even more than the behavior, that presents this well-intended but helpless consolation as a kind of curt blanketing of black self-expression after a full scene of a white woman's unrestricted lamentations. Both women are acting as lots of people in their situation would; the filmmakers are acting, I would allege, well beneath the standard required of them as participants in this scene or as retroactive shapers of its drama, its rightful centers of gravity.

After Restrepo, Mugabe and the White African is the second major documentary release of 2010 to offer invaluable, witnessing testimony of bare life in a lethally precarious state, and yet to misunderstand the filmmakers' somewhat flaunted immersion in these dangerous states as an implicit validation of everything they show us, and of every way they show it to us. Restrepo summoned such compassion for the all-but-marooned American soldiers in Afghanistan that one senses we were not to mind that no other voice, much less any metacritical or historical framework, gets invited to contextualize scenes that look an awful lot like rumor-driven arrests of shocked-looking Al Qaeda suspects, or like unvetted claims about the tactical miracle of having secured the Restrepo base. I'm not disputing this was the case, strategically. I'm lamenting that I had know way of judging, based on a film that seems accountable to just this sort of teaching, whether or not these claims for Restrepo hold water. More than that, I am disputing the stripped-down tactic of letting interview subjects speak entirely from their own experience, unmatchable in certain respects but inevitably blinkered and even dangerously narrow in others, as a filmic intervention into a war that was largely catalyzed by unvetted info with more emotional than scrupulous appeals. I say this as someone with an undisguised bias for documentaries in which the filmmakers immerse themselves in the world they are profiling, rather than compositing a rhetorical case from stock footage and "expert," talking-head opinions. Still, in cases like Restrepo's, the material begs for some outside, orienting voices which might challenge or deepen the soldiers' sense of their own mission or their own impulses, without necessarily demoting them from a deserved pride of place. They might be the best positioned commentators on their own plight, but they are not the only ones, and the exclusion of other perspectives fundamentally hobbles major facets of what these soldiers say and do.

The situation in Mugabe is in many ways worse, because in opting not to engage a single black worker in conversation—outside the brief and truncated outburst of grieving Belinda, and the momentary, low-light plea of a black Parliamentarian whose entire cadre of friends is beaten in the streets at night—Mugabe does not even supply itself with a Restrepo-style raison d'ëtre of affording a thick, ground-level description of its protagonists' lifeworld. We never see the Campbells or the Freeths do any farming. We have no idea how it is that they manage to pay, much less "befriend" (if that's the verb everyone here would agree on, and they might), labor staffs of 500 or more. Mike's self-consciously dry comment that he will attend to the saber-wielding bandits in his maize field once he's finished sipping his drink is presented as the charming taciturnity of a dug-in survivalist, even though I wondered, what are his workers eating or drinking, or where are they resting or not resting, while he downs this cocktail? And what do they, or the Campbells and Freeths themselves, think about his oddly winking hat-tip to the noblesse oblige of the plantation-owner, or about their modestly but still handsomely appointed living rooms and drawing rooms in a country where yesterday's dollar is today's quintillionth of a cent? Why do Bailey and Thompson keep ending scenes with slow fades after Mike or Ben has just offered some iteration of the "Why do they hate us?" rhetoric that Americans uttered or heard so oten in 2001? Do the filmmakers not trust that we would fail to see the injustice and the bullying villainy that is so horribly and patently afflicting the Campbells and the Freeths if they risked even 30 seconds of backstory about colonialism, or poked around in the seeds of colonial disenfranchisement that have now sprouted, at least in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, into the monstrous vegetation of murderous greed? Is there nothing to be learned from the "other side," through research and outside commentary if not through the highly unlikely, potentially life-threatening prospect of engaging one of Mugabe's land-grantees in conversation?

I am fully convinced that the Campbells are the rightful and also the more communally beneficial owners of this land, but by depriving them of a single moment of onscreen concession to all the painful layers of Zimbabwe's predicament, which seems badly summarized in the film's trifecta of seething black henchmen, victimized white families, and a silenced majority of trusting black employees, the filmmakers risk depriving their subjects as well as themselves of even a bare minimum of reflection on the pretexts that make the modern situation so devastating. The Campbells and Freeths do not, on camera, work the farm whose fecundity and efficiency is so central to Mugabe's premise. They do not, on camera, admit any complexity of a tragically stilted postcolonial legacy that is not their fault, but is surely their business to contemplate with more depth than rarefied adages about how "we should all be loving each other instead of tearing each other down." The only person on screen who says anything about colonialism, or fills in any picture about why black land ownership is a dream or a promise that Mugabe's thugs can effectively exploit is the clearly deranged, clearly hypocritical son of an apparatchik who arrives to the Campbell's farm and, in by far the film's most effective scene, trots out all of the twisted, disingenuous, but hardly empty reasons why he preaches Black Patrimony as a fervent religion. It is just as crucial to hear what Mike or Ben sounds like when forced to shoot holes in this tawdry soapboxing as it is to hear the soapboxing; there is nothing remotely resembling either side of this fraught conversation anywhere else in the movie, since the filmmakers refuse to ask the Campbell-Freeths what a just redistribution of land or wealth might look like, even when they passingly imply that they might support such a program. When the going really gets tough, the protagonists lean heavily on their faith and even quote directly from scripture, and that HD camera finds ways, even amidst its surreptitious sequestering, to apply a burnished, goldenrod cast to these moving but also pitiable pleas. Bathetically filmed supplications to divine mercy take the place that clearly belongs to social analysis and sober reflection on worldly patterns.

Meanwhile, Mugabe and the White African is not just a tale of an embattled family—sometimes literally, and harrowingly—but about a trial and a case, which everyone refers to as "landmark" despite our (as it happens) well-founded belief that the SADC tribunal's rulings are totally non-enforcable in Zimbabwe. The Campbells' lawyer is a black woman, Elize Angula, and one wonders, too, whether she, living and working in a nation that does allow press, has more to add about the volatile issue of land ownership and disownership. She makes an interesting comment early on that she applauds the Campbells for embracing a white African identity and not "trying to pass as black Africans," and she regularly praises the fortitude of her clients, but more than that she does not say, and nor does she do most of the arguing we observe in the courtroom footage. Indeed, the structures by which the prosecutors mount their case, beyond the bald facts that all the dispossessed farmers are white and most or all of the land-grantees seem frivolously uncredentialed, is also left totally in the dark. I repeatedly wondered about the extent to which the lawyers, the judges, or even the plaintiffs truly expected a SADC court to deliver a decision with any teeth, although the legal sequences are worth it for the astonishing moment when Mugabe's crew, finally denied in a request for yet another postponement, walks out on a full half of their own case rather than arguing a word of it. Within the terms that Mugabe and the White African sets, the trial is a kind of cliffhanger leitmotif occupying a completely compressed and abstract plane; it is entirely telling that the most "lawyering" we see Elize doing is looking at large, color reproductions of Ben's, Angela's, and Mike's beaten bodies and reacting with outrage. That this would happen isn't remotely tolerable by any standard, but this aghast reaction also isn't law, and it leaves open the pressing question of what, precisely, is law in this situation. What prospects do these claimants even have? What can justice get them? A closing caption tells us that the Campbells are the first private citizens ever to be victorious in any suit brought against the SADC. A thrilling victory, and yet a heartbreaking pronouncement about all the Zimbabweans who have not been made privy to this sort of extraordinary judicial recourse (most of whom, let's guess, were black). The film only sees one half, the brighter half, of the truth inhering in this remarkable statistic.

Mugabe and the White African has two endings, one stirring and hope-lifting, one delivered only in text and almost too sad to stand. It's only fair that documentarians be allowed to film unfolding stories that continue to encompass key swerves and reversals after filming has wrapped, but it shouldn't be the case that we can't even conjecture what exactly the happy or the sad ending of this picture might mean. What level of protection do the Campbells expect? Who will be at home when they return? Where will they go if they can't go there? And what about their hundreds of workers, who can't go anywhere, and are subject to many of the same traumas and intimidations that their bosses withstand but with few of the insulating resources, or the reach into formal channels of advocacy?

I'm aware that this review will sound ungenerous to many readers, either because it solicits the perspective of the black expropriators more than some feel it should, or because I'm asking Mugabe and the White African to be a longer, more widely focused, richer, and more studious film than it is—even as I admit it's a huge risk and a semi-miracle that this version of the film even exists, given the limits of budget and time, and of journalistic interdict. Sometimes you get the film that time and money have allowed, but sometimes, too, you cannot pretend that the film that exists is remotely sufficient to the film that ought to. As hard as I may sound like I'm being on a documentary that casts needed light on such a weighty, important, affecting tale, it may require seeing the film to observe just how many times Mugabe opts for tears, wistfulness, and under-interrogated privilege over analysis and context. Bailey and Thompson ought to harbor more confidence that the local dimensions of justice could still be discerned within a storytelling environment that grants the untenable paradoxes in which these conflicts must be adjudicated—where no one's hands are precisely clean, though some are much dirtier than others. Last year's Rwanda-set documentary My Neighbor, My Killer, enjoying an easier pass to open filming of its subjects, but arguably treating an even more blood-soaked history of trauma, exemplifies how you can tell a rich, detailed, multi-sided story without just guiltily muddying the waters or being too intimidated to come out swinging on behalf of some of your subjects over and against some others.

Mugabe and the White African is an equally compelling document but too often more difficult to praise, allowing the subjects to betray what an American might call antebellum naïvetés, voicing underexplored platitudes alongside their justified outrage, dignity, and fear. Even the UK trailer implies how heavily the film elects to privilege lachrymose close-ups, when wide-frame analysis would have cast heroes and villains in most of the same slots, while seeming maturely immersed in the history of a region instead of narrowly chagrined by the suffering of the few compared to that of the many. We're left with a movie about a court-case that remains at much more than arm's length, a family that is rendered more symbolically than intimately and who profess to grasp their situation much less than they surely do, and a swelling population of the most disastrously aggrieved who are all but excluded from the mise-en-scène or the soundtrack. Mugabe and the White African achieves a lot, and the unjust devastation of the Campbells' and Freeths' way of life is a persuasive call and a rich topic—it just isn't engineered to survive these three tremendous amputations of essential context, without which Mugabe and the White African makes little sense or, worse, very dubious sense. Mugabe's exclusive targeting of whites for the divestiture of lands they rightfully own is an awful treachery, and even at that, nowhere near the top of his long list of diabolical misdeeds. Though obviously (obviously!) of a hugely lower order of magnitude, Mugabe and the White African's exclusive targeting of whites as the symbols and articulators of national grief is unsettling in its own ways. Treacly, tinkling piano chords, hagiographic snapshots of tow-headed children who are seen but not heard, elegant African lawyers who radiate an aura of hyper-competence that they are not actually invited to display on film, and interviews with white parents back home in England that counterbalance the ignoring of black families all the way back in the room where you started: I'm not saying these devices don't work, but they leave massive and sometimes reactionary holes in a film that could easily have pled a more accommodating and sophisticated yet equally airtight case. Grade: C+

VOR: (4)   (What is this?)
We'll take it backwards. If we're talking Risk, Mugabe is as practically risky as they come, though a certain lack of thematic and intellectual risk, thinking from more than one perspective and hoisting argument above persuasive pathos, is precisely where I saw the film fall down. In terms of Originality, this isn't innovative filmmaking, but it needn't be, and its extraordinary status as a record of an almost entirely cloaked country is remarkable. Though, again, there is still some cloaking: Mike and Ben willingly take the filmmakers on furtive driving tours of other endangered white farms, but leaving aside the question of interviews, we never even see an image of how the poor, black supermajority of Zimbabwe even lives. How can this be? My recommendations and qualms about Risk and Originality, along with the endless review I just wrote, probably establish what I think about the film's urgent but somewhat self-undermining value. So, I'm going to go with a 4, even though the arguments that arise even from what I perceive as the film's limitations are bound to be richer than the film itself. For good measure, I thought Mike Hale's review in the New York Times and Joe Nawaz'z piece for Culture Northern Ireland got at some of the same trepidations that registered with me, though Nawaz, especially, is able to put a more positive spin on the film's vulnerabilities than I have. He exits the movie thinking it's a strong piece of work that largely overcomes the obstacles it sets for itself, and it's an argument that compels me very much, while I try to decide whether I agree.

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