A new documentary portraying a white Zimbabwean farmer’s struggle to resist the unlawful seizure of his land by a senior Zanu PF politician is undermined by its lack of ‘historical and political context’, writes Blessing-Miles Tendi.
The documentary ‘Mugabe and the White African’, directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, is an intimate account about Michael Campbell, one of the few white farmers left in Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF began a violent land seizure programme in 2000. It portrays the 75 year-old Michael’s struggle to resist the unlawful seizure of his Mount Carmel Farm by Nathan Shamuyarira, a senior Zanu PF politician. In 2008, Michael, assisted by his son in law Ben Freeth, successfully challenged Mugabe before the South African Development Community (SADC) international court, charging his government with human rights violations and racial discrimination. The documentary is an emotionally charged depiction of the court case, and does not spare the viewer bloody footage and violence. ‘It resonates internationally because it is about big issues of human rights. It is about humanity and you do not have to understand Africa to get it’, co-director Bailey has explained.
It is precisely Bailey’s belief that ‘you do not have to understand Africa’, from which the documentary’s primary shortcomings emanate. Zimbabwe is not Africa and Africa is not Zimbabwe. The documentary lacks historical and political context. Land and race are important themes in the documentary but not once is the Lancaster House Independence Agreement (1979), which perpetuated racially biased land distribution in independent Zimbabwe, mentioned. We are exposed to the emotional anguish of Ben’s British parents, living in the county of Kent in South East England, as they agonise over their son’s safety on Mount Carmel Farm – but Britain’s role in Zimbabwe’s land problem is never referred to. The documentary shows us that Mugabe implemented a racist land reform programme in 2000 but we are not told why and how it took him 20 years to become a racist. Mugabe did not just wake up a racist one fateful morning in 2000. The documentary needed to at least mention the challenging nature of racial reconciliation since independence, because it is the unravelling of reconciliation that informs the anti-white behaviour the film depicts.
Bailey and Thompson go out of their way to demonise Mugabe. When the documentary’s title first appears on the screen it is all in white. Suddenly the word Mugabe begins to slowly drip with what appears to be blood. The word Mugabe is soon coloured red completely, while the colour of the rest of the title is unchanged. ‘Horror movie or searching documentary’, I wondered to myself. Mugabe’s oft quoted out of context statement that if redistributing land from whites to blacks makes him a Hitler in Western eyes then let it be, and let it be ‘tenfold’ he adds, follows not too long after that. We are even shown a newspaper headline that reads ‘we are like Jews in NAZI Germany’, words presumably uttered by a besieged white farmer. Mugabe and Zanu PF are guilty of horrendous human rights violations, but they are not Hitlers nor is Zimbabwe remotely like Nazi Germany.
The voice of someone spewing anti-white rhetoric is made to reverberate in the background at opportune moments in the documentary. The voice is hellish, black, evil and unmistakably Mugabe’s. In contrast the Campbell and Freeth families are presented as God-fearing, forgiving and compassionate. This juxtaposition furthers the good versus bad, demon versus angel distinctions that have characterised popular debates about Mugabe. He is a failed leader, guilty of misgovernance; but crude juxtapositions with the ‘good’ white farmer inhibit nuanced popular debate.
The film lacks focus on the plight and hardships of other races. Black farm workers are constantly in the background. When they do come to the fore they are mute. ‘If I lose (the farm) we all suffer. We are in this together’, Ben remarks to a black farm worker who mostly nods his head and smiles. ‘Pray for me. I will bring you blankets’, Ben tells a group of black farm workers before he leaves for the SADC court in Namibia. Again the black farm workers do not speak. They smile, nod their heads and walk away under the rising Zimbabwean sun. The black farm workers noticeably wear tattered clothes and their houses, always in the background of course, are of an inferior standard to those of the white landowners. The relationship between the black farm workers and the white landowners passes off as paternalistic and patronising. Whenever black farm workers and white landowners are filmed together in moments of compassion there is a palpable unease between them, a contrived empathy, and the fact that power relations are skewed in favour of whites is apparent.
‘Mugabe and the White African Male’ is a more apt title for this documentary, because the voices of women are secondary. They have no agency. This is a documentary about white male courage in the face of Zanu PF’s violent black males. For instance, there is little on the contributions of Angela, wife to Michael, and her daughter Laura, wife to Ben, to the resistance. And yet women are heroines too because when the brave men are away in Namibia fighting court battles with Mugabe’s lawyers, Laura and Angela courageously hold the fort against Shamuyarira’s pugnacious and ever lurking farm invaders. As for black female farm workers, these do not even nod their heads and smile – they are simply invisible.
In the documentary Ben asks, you can be white and American, you can be white and Australian, so why can you not be white and African? Bailey and Thompson intended Ben’s question to be a central one to the documentary, which is surprising given its problematic nature. Part of establishing white American and white Australian identities in America and Australia involved nearly exterminating the non-white Native Americans and Aborigines respectively; claiming indigenous peoples’ land and forging white identity over many generations by subjugating and writing non-whites out of the history of those countries. America and Australia are the worst examples Ben could ever have cited. Becoming ‘African’ is not about economic integration alone – something many white Zimbabweans never grasped. It is also about social, residential and political integration, and about learning local languages.
In the documentary the Freeth and Campbell families are distinctly white Europeans in Africa who claim to be white Africans based on their right to own land. Never are they captured speaking in any of the local languages. They speak English only – even to the black farm workers. We are not shown inter-group marriages by their family members or by the neighbouring white farmers who appear in the documentary.
In a separate documentary by Hopewell Chinono called ‘A Violent Response’, which is about violence in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, Michael Campbell comments on the Mount Carmel Farm violence by saying, ‘My faith in the African as a ruler in Africa has been shaken. I do not believe that any of them are capable of ruling themselves. Democracy is a joke’. Angela is shown wilfully nodding her head as he opines. Were Bailey and Thompson so gullible to fall for Michael’s ‘I am a white African’ pretensions or did they conveniently choose to omit the unpalatable reality that colonial attitudes endured in independent Zimbabwe? What makes ‘Mugabe and the White African’ a dangerous documentary is not so much its content but Bailey and Thompson’s belief that they are actually ‘helping’ the people of Zimbabwe by having made this documentary.
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