Robert Mugabe’s 'land redistribution’ policy, under which Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms have been brutally plundered, has ruined thousands of lives and turned once-productive areas into wastelands. A new documentary tells the moving story of one family, their bodies beaten, their home torched, who refuse to roll over. Graham Boynton
There is a moment in Mugabe and the White African that suddenly and vividly defines the banality, the infantile pointlessness, of those directing Zimbabwe’s violent collapse into anarchy. Peter Chamada, the son of Mugabe’s political ally Nathan Shamuyarira, has arrived on a white farmer’s land in his shining new ToyotaPrado and is taking photographs on an expensive mobile phone. He glares, wild-eyed with contempt, into the camera and declares, 'This land is now my home. The government has taken it from you people [the white farmers] to redistribute to the poor black majority. This land belongs to the black peasants.’
As the records show, the land taken from some 4,000 productive white Zimbabwean farmers, often with violent force, has been handed almost exclusively to Mugabe’s cronies – pliable judges, air vice-marshals, provincial administrators, girlfriends of ministers and assorted relations such as Chamada. When the white farmer Ben Freeth asks how someone like the expensively dressed Chamada can describe himself as a member of the poor black majority, 'when every time you come here you arrive in a brand-new car’, the raging scion spits out, 'I will sleep here until you are out. We want to deal with friendlier people – the Chinamen, the Indians. We don’t want anything to do with you [white] people.’
All around are the black farm workers who clearly dread the moment Chamada and his ilk prise the farm from its white owners. For them this supposed liberation will be the beginning of their descent into joblessness, homelessness and hunger, a journey taken by the majority of Mugabe’s subjects over the past 10 years. As the film shows, the farms plundered by Mugabe’s inner circle, which once formed the backbone of a thriving economy, are now by and large unmaintained, overgrown wastelands. (Mugabe first set his ragtag army of militants on to the white farmers in 2000 after he lost a referendum called to entrench his political power. Since then violent intimidation and seizures in the name of land distribution have derailed the commercial agricultural sector.)
This exchange takes place a matter of weeks before Freeth, his father-in-law and mother-in-law are abducted, tortured and beaten by a gang of Chamada’s, and thus Mugabe’s, storm troopers. Freeth’s father-in-law is Mike Campbell, 75, the White African of the film’s title, and he is battered so severely that he is unable to attend the final hearing of the international human rights court in Namibia, which is to deliver its verdict on the legality of Mugabe’s land invasions. Freeth is just about able to attend that hearing, but in a wheelchair and with his head swathed in bandages.
The court finds in their favour and declares the attempts to invade the Campbells’ pretty Mount Carmel fruit farm illegal. As their legal counsel says, they bought the farm on the open market after Zimbabwe’s independence and with the approval of Mugabe’s government at the time. The judgment also means that the invasions of the past decade are illegal and all the farmers who have been thrown off the land have a right to return to their farms. It is a landmark judgment that Mugabe will completely ignore.
This courtroom battle, which ran for more than a year, is the narrative thread for Mugabe and the White African, a remarkable documentary that is longlisted for the 2010 Oscars, and has already won several major awards for the British filmmakers Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson. Although the court case is successful, the battle rages on. Constant attacks on the farm workers, theft of farm equipment and the destruction of their crops drove Campbell and Freeth to return to the Namibian court in June where they won a contempt order against the Zimbabwean government. Two months later the farmhouses were burnt to the ground and the farmers and their families were forced to flee their land. Meanwhile, Mike Campbell’s injuries have left him in a diminished state. As he says, 'They turned me into an old man in one night.’
While most such documentaries are harsh, grainy, news-feature affairs that owe their veracity to nuts-and-bolts journalism, this film is a thoughtful, structured piece that is beautifully filmed, cleverly edited and driven by a cast of characters whose courage and decency lift the spirits despite the Stygian gloom in which they are living. As the judging panel of the Sterling World Grand Jury Prize observed, 'It is not a mere document of a series of events, but masterfully uses cinematic expression to allow all of us to engage in an incredible and historic struggle.’
Thompson’s partner, Lucy Bailey, whose background is in anthropology, says that making terse three-minute documentaries for Comic Relief taught the couple the power of good filmmaking and provided perfect training for their first full-length film. 'Life is raw in Africa in ways that it plainly isn’t in Europe, and for Comic Relief we had filmed in the most awful slums, so we had learnt how to tell larger stories by focusing on the plight of individuals.’
The couple had also spent considerable time in Africa making documentaries for National Geographic, the BBC and Discovery Channel, and, Thompson says, 'we were always looking for the big story. We had come across a newspaper clipping about this white farmer who was planning to take on Robert Mugabe in the courts and it sounded like a classic David and Goliath story.’
He says that the moment he met Freeth and Campbell at the first hearing in the Namibian courthouse in December 2007 he knew he had the characters around which to make a significant documentary. 'As soon as we started talking to them we realised we had compelling central characters, both with immense dignity. What we were to learn along the way was that the supporting cast – the wives, the neighbour, the farm workers – were all manna from heaven for filmmakers. They were simply quite wonderful people.’
The film took more than a year to make and involved Thompson taking five clandestine trips into Zimbabwe, smuggling in large-format film equipment that was difficult to conceal. Despite his experiences as a cameraman in hostile environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq, he says he has never worked in a more terrifying place and was quite unprepared for the threatening atmosphere of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
'Ben had told me about a cloud of fear that hung over the country but I don’t think I really appreciated it until I began making this film there. In Gaza, for example, if you have a permit you can film everything all the time. In Zimbabwe, there are no permits and you never know what will happen next. It is a very intimidating place, ruled by fear, but that’s precisely what Mugabe wants the country to be like.’
Bailey, who was in charge of the logistics, says the film took a lot of careful planning. 'We had to smuggle equipment in and out of the country, we had to avoid travelling with the equipment, and nobody but the protagonists could know we were filming. We worked with a lot of brave Zimbabwean fixers who risked their lives moving the equipment around and getting the rushes out of the country.’
When they started the project just before that first court hearing, the filmmakers promised the Zimbabwean farmers that they would try to get their message out to the widest audience. Having spent some time working and travelling in Africa, they have been profoundly affected by the beauty of the landscape and the charm and warmth of the ordinary people, black and white. For this reason, Thompson says, they set out not only to make 'as good a film as we could about the subject but also to make a film that had far-reaching consequences, to actually make a difference.’ To that end they have already organised private screenings for the Southern African Development Community secretariat, various non-government organisations and African politicians, and are hoping to do the same with the US Senate, 'and get it in front of world leaders in the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations’.
What these world leaders will see is a film that addresses the plight of the Zimbabwean nation through the prism of an honourable, courageous, God-fearing farming family, whose loyalty to their beleaguered black workforce – the victims of torture and beatings at the hands of Mugabe’s thugs as much as the whites – is moving. Before the two protagonists leave for the Namibian courts, Freeth tells a group of young men, 'If we lose the court case and lose the farm, then I am letting you down. Pray that we win.’
Mugabe and his cronies have made it clear that they want to see whites out of Zimbabwe and the white population has fallen from almost 300,000 in the late 1970s to less than 20,000 today. But those who remain, many of whom are second- and third- generation Zimbabweans, believe they have an inalienable right to be there. As Freeth says, 'It is possible to be a white man and an American. It is possible to be a white man and an Australian. But is it possible to be a white man and an African? If you talk to Mugabe, the answer is no.’
Those last remaining white Zimbabweans are fascinating characters, droll and phlegmatic in the face of constant danger, determined and adaptable as the country’s political and economic infrastructure implodes around them, and calm and forgiving under the utmost provocation. And, as Andrew Thompson observes of Mike Campbell, 'with no visible anger and with a twinkle in his eye’.
In one memorable scene in the film, Mike and his wife, Angela, are relaxing in the farmhouse living room, Mike taking the traditional colonial sundowner, when news comes through that an armed militia gang has been spotted in the mealie fields by farm staff. As he lifts his whisky glass to his lips, Mike tells his wife there is no use getting excited. 'I’ll go out there when I have finished my drink.’ A dramatic scene follows with Campbell, Freeth and some of the workers arming themselves and driving into the pitch-black African night to hunt down the intruders. The tension and the unseen presence of loitering thugs brilliantly conveys the sense of isolation and ever-present danger these farmers have been living with for more than a decade.
For most of us in the West, the Zimbabwean land invasions and the plight of the white farmers have been vaguely understood stories of minor interest running in the background, while major world events – the Iraq war, the Afghanistan conflict, the collapse of the Western banking industry – have dominated the headlines and our thoughts. By bringing the humanity of the 'White African’ and his family to our attention, Bailey and Thompson have firmly fixed the spotlight on one of the world’s most cunning and destructive political leaders. And if the people of Zimbabwe, black and white, are to recover from the years of decline and destruction, they will need the likes of Freeth and Campbell much more than they will need the likes of Robert Mugabe.
As I write, the pair are continuing their fight to return to Mount Carmel farm. The farm houses are burnt to the ground, the machinery has been looted, the crops destroyed, and the 500 workers and their families are now scratching around trying to fend off starvation. But the white Africans will not give in. As Campbell explains, 'I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to say, one day in the future, my grandfather had a farm in Africa, a few guys came along and said boo to him and he packed his bags and ran away. I’d rather they knew that we’d fought for our farm.’