And yet Mugabe’s still alive … there is no god
One of the best films of recent years that the-editorial-’nobody’ has seen is MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN, and I learned some sad news from ex-colleague Sonny Bunch yesterday. The man at the center of that film, Zimbabwean farmer Mike Campbell, already an old man when the MUGABE documentary was made, has died from events contained in the film. According to the family Campbell died from the long-run health effects that a vigilante beating by Mugabe’s thugs will have on a man in his mid-70s. (These are news obits and they necessarily contain spoilers for the film.)
Sonny thought MUGABE was the best film he saw at SilverDocs that year and he placed it in his Top 10 overall for the year. I don’t think quite THAT highly of it, but I graded it an 8 and wrote the following about it.
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (Lucy Bailey, 2009, Britain) — 8 — Follows a family of white farmers in Zimbabwe resisting expropriation of their land by dictator Robert Mugabe, partly by standing up to government-backed gang-invasions, but mostly by filing a case in a regional Southern African court, accusing Zimbabwe of racial discrimination. Sometimes looks like ass without extenuating circumstances (you gotta do what you gotta do to get footage in Zimbabwe, but there’s no reason for the Namibian airport to look like it was shot on a Securiticam). Plus this sort of legal crusade for justice story will never sit too well intellectually with Victor the Hard-Eyed Realist. Those caveats aside, otherwise brilliant. It’s a very simple formula — find a great story, put the right people at center of it, let them tell it, and get the footage yourself to show it. Even more than DEVIL, you find yourself in disbelief that this footage exists — a confrontation with a government minister’s son, who comes to take over the farm, calling it his and starting a live on-camera argument over history, whether whites have any place in Zimbabwe and everybody’s bona fides is as tense as unstaged realism gets (Skandie plug should this film find the distribution it deserves). Also, film doesn’t shrink from farmers religiosity, regularly showing them praying, reading the Bible and seeing God’s Providence.
The film, now available on DVD and via Netflix streaming, was generally well-reviewed (97% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) but one of the few criticisms made, though it often WAS made, was basically that it was about white people’s POV rather than blacks and about how this white farming family was being oppressed without any “context of colonialism” or similar. In a generally favorable review, Roger Ebert unbelievably concluded with the grotesque claim that “Apart from skin color, the difference between Mike Campbell and Robert Mugabe is that Campbell wants to run a farm.” (I can think of at least a few more and more-salient ones myself.) When Lucy Bailey showed the film at Silver Docs a couple of years ago, she was asked a similar question about not mentioning colonial injustices and she said, close as I can recall, that “this is not a story about colonialism. This is a story about a post-colonial injustice that has its own integrity.” I had to restrain myself from applauding.
In general, “context” is whatever you want it to be to excuse a wrong, while the wrong that you don’t want to excuse simply “is” (see also, the Middle East; even colonialism itself). Indeed, if we want to talk about context, why shouldn’t MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN detail the role liberal-activist Americans and Europeans played in bringing Mugabe to power and celebrating it? For example, one favorite song on my iTunes is Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster,” from late 1980 just after Mugabe’s election in which Wonder sings, as joyously as only he can, that “Peace has come to Zimbabwe / Third World’s right on the one / Now’s the time for celebration / Cause we’ve only just begun.” Just as much as colonialism, that’s a true fact that has “relevance” to today (more so for Europeans and Americans than Africans admittedly) since Stevie Wonder appears on the way to sainthood. The answer to this graf’s first question, of course, is “It shouldn’t because that is not the story MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN is telling.” Neither is colonialism.