Most film scholars, critics, and avid viewers never assume documentary films are unbiased, fact-driven texts, and recognize the problematic consequences in believing such a fallacy. The very process of filmmaking, the very nature of its goals, is communicated through subjective edits, camera placement, music cues, or coverage, aesthetics that shape stories into a specific point of view. Take such diverse icons of the medium as Frederick Wiseman, Peter Davis, D. A. Pennebaker, and Michael Moore, and what connects these auteurs isn’t style or substance, but their desire to advance a certain thematic idea about the way we live. In short, the term “nonfiction” is bullshit, and something that should be immediately questioned. This assertion isn’t particularly fresh, but bears reminding when unlocking a wrenching, thoughtful, and admittedly slanted documentary like Mugabe and the White African. Its power regarding the human condition stems from the very fact that the filmmakers believe one side is honorably right and other is undeniably wrong.
Battle lines are drawn almost immediately in Lucy Baily an Andrew Thompson’s indicting film about Mike Campbell, a white African farmer and resident of Zimbabwe for over 25 years who acts as a symbol against President Robert Mugabe’s racially motivated land-reform bill. Mike, his son-in-law Ben Freeth, their respective families, and almost 500 farm workers are under constant threat of eviction and physical harm by Mugabe supporters, armed men who stake out a farm and intimidate the white owners into leaving. Mugabe instituted the reform bill under the disguise of economic growth and prosperity for the poor. But the filmmakers easily prove the legislation was created to make Zimbabwe an all-black nation, replacing white farmers with government cronies who’ve never operated such intricate businesses. A totalitarian connection is apt, as Mugabe himself says, “Let me be Hitler, tenfold,” and the devastating results of this transition can be seen in the millions of fallow land acres and thousands of once employed workers now destitute, trends that threaten the country’s food supply and job market. Mugabe and the White African establishes these loosely explored facts, giving the viewer a broad basis in the politics and social issues before focusing entirely on the specific, multi-dimensional characters under duress.
The opening shot of sunbeams streaming through a dark rain cloud flushed with thunder and lightning evokes the tension between these overlapping ideologies, rendering the inherent violence and the possibility of compromise through nature’s overt symbolism. This somber B-roll footage soon gives way to a montage of Mike preparing for his testimony in front of the SDAC Tribunal Court in Namibia, where he is challenging Mugabe’s authority. Walking to the courtroom Mike muses, “Is it possible to be a white man and an African?,” firmly positioning questions of identity that will remain crucial throughout the film. The first of many postponements and interruptions to Mike’s case starts a debilitating trend of inaction, and the filmmakers establish this legal quagmire for justice as the story’s core narrative structure. While the audience waits with Mike and the always optimistic Ben, the possibility for grave danger builds stronger with each legal delay, and Mugabe and the White African becomes part thriller, part procedural. During the sequences at the farm, a dense and expansive plot of land with more nooks and crannies one can count, the film feels like a western where homesteaders are under siege, with Ben calling Mugabe’s henchmen “farm invaders.” The two men even have to mount up late at night with rifles to investigate a disturbance on the homestead. All of these moments are steeped in dread.
As the courts continue to postpone Mike and Ben’s case and surrounding neighbors experience horrific beatings, the stakes rise to almost uncomfortable levels. Mugabe and the White African spends time with these people waiting for the inevitable violence to come, and there isn’t a thing neither filmmaker nor subject can do to stop it. The last half hour of the film might not come as a shock, but the horrific imagery presented speaks to the gravity of the situation and the conviction of these people. Baily and Thompson build momentum up this point, showering the viewer with impressions, statistics, interviews, but it’s the picture of a bloodied and beaten Ben that becomes the film’s main thesis. “There’s no manmade thing we can trust,” Ben says, his convictions to succeed and defend his father-in-law’s land growing stronger with each breath. Ultimately, Mugabe and the White African is not about unbiased examinations of social strata, political topics, or even contrasting points of view. It’s a film concerned with the essential struggle at the heart of every minority, be it a white in Africa or any other person demanding a fair shake.
While Mugabe and the White African might end with a rousing victory worthy of the best legal thrillers Hollywood can muster, anyone familiar with the themes of government corruption and greed should keep the celebration somewhat muted. As the closing credits suggest, the long reach of a brutal dictator cannot be fully transcended, only endured. But the overarching result of the struggle doesn’t take precedent in this masterful documentary. Mike, Ben, and their respective wives Angela and Laura all share a consistency of spirit and resolve that becomes the elemental connection binding this particular human experience with the generational value of a specific place. Ben sums his ideology up best when he cracks a smile despite his maimed face and utters, “I believe it’s been a wonderful day.” Quotes like these are color blind, and link the two white Africans with their true brothers of Zimbabwe, the working people who share their desire for a just state. I don’t see Mugabe and the White African as a “love letter” to the Campbells, like a fellow colleague of mine recently stated. To me, this enthralling film feels more like a double-edged poem, rife with both violence and hope, desperation and resolve.
Shot on standard DV, Mugabe and the White African isn't necessarily a beautiful looking film, but First Run Features has done a good job of rendering all the flourishes of color and texture the story has to offer. Many of the landscape shots are on the bright side, blowing out the natural light of the farm country. The sound design is consistently well balanced, highlighting many of the ambient noises of the countryside, but also drowning out noise altogether in moments of crisis.
Supplemental material is incredibly lacking on this disc, consisting of only a handful of still photographs showing Mike, Ben, and Laura on the farm with their workers, and a written Q&A with directors Lucy Baily and Andrew Thompson that could have been attached to the press notes for the film's theatrical release. Overall, this disc sorely lacks substantive material for one of the best documentaries to come along in years.
Mugabe and the White African fully believes in the humanity and good will of its subjects, and doesn’t mind taking a biased point of view to prove their vision is just.