Mugabe and the White African, a reflection

The curtains open to a full little theatre and two of the trailers are reality style documentaries: Banksy’s Exit through the Gift shop and Michael Moore‘s Capitalism. For a second they seem more motivating than what I expect to see next.

I’m not in the mood for a political lecture but I am expecting one. Race, colonialism, structural forces of aggression and nation construction, pent up rage over generations, irrationality (or rationality) of corrupt governments, and on and on.

This is what I anticipate and these elements are there to an extent. There is an impromptu and aggressive interview with a minister’s son who proclaims that Zimbabwe will no longer live under colonialism; a marked example of corrupt government giving redistributed land to girlfriends, sons, friends etc; and the presence of the black Zimbabweans who make up the majority of the 500 people that Mike’s land supports.

These aren’t the only focus though and maybe because it’s hard to document abstract political processes through only one set of eyes. The life depicted is that of White Africans Ben Freeth and his father in-law Michael (Mike) Campbell. The movie opens with a focus on Mike who is more comfortable out on the land than at court. He is about to face an international court of law ‘if the elevator works’ as he wryly states. He is one man against the state and he seems resolute.
I sat in my comfortable cinema seat and hoped that it would be a triumphant tale of one man overcoming great obstacles but I guessed it would more likely be Bambi v Godzilla.
Covertly filmed against the backdrop of tumultuous 2008 Zimbabwe elections, this harrowing documentary follows 75-year-old farmer Mike Campbell and his family as they fight to save their farm from the hands of Robert Mugabe’s controversial land seizure campaign.

This movie is not only a glimpse of a family living a political and violent upheaval but also a hint at the socially constructed nature of reality. The rule of law only counts when there is someone there to enforce it. Just as the US failed to appear in the trial against them at the International Court of Justice and then ignored the rulings, so do Mugabe’s men walk out of the court proceedings when it no longer suits them.

Mike shows us the deed to his property which he paid off after 20 years and is now apparently worthless. We see legal arguments put forth by his counsel in England and the African representative, a young black woman who is prone to more emotive displays. She is a little closer to the story and the confident joyful appearance of the English lawyers is a stark contrast to the resolute Mike and the barely hopeful but optimistic Ben.

The film is brutal but it’s real and there are many scenes showing the beauty of Zimbabwe with low sight of lands and plenty of sky. The result can’t possibly be surprising but it is an inspiring display of conviction, perseverance and courage. It’s undoubtedly a white voice that speaks up but they’re the ones filming and it’s their story.

Along with Banksy’s and Moore’s movies, this film is a display of how it feels to confront authority and its consequences. With Banksy it’s about the way we think, with Moore’s Capitalism there is a sickening glimpse at the corporate and financial actions that Michael Kinsley defined beautifully when he said ‘the scandal isn’t what’s illegal but what’s legal’. In ‘Mugabe and the White African’ there is an opportunity to glimpse a situation where it is legitimate to question who defines legal and how is that reality?

Mugabe and the White African is showing at the Watershed until February 11

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