Much like last year’s crowd-pleasing, muck-aimed Swiffer mop The Cove, Mugabe and the White African is cinema-as-journalism at its most aesthetically confident and humanely satisfying—and it’s all the more profound for being so without a cute, shamelessly anthropomorphized creature to melt its audience into involuntary pots of sympathy fondue. A politically minded documentary that maintains the look and feel of an impromptu chamber case study, Mugabe follows a little over a year in the lives of Zimbabwe farmer Mike Campbell and his son-in-law Ben as they defend their land against government agents attempting to seize and redistribute property across the nation.
As with the muddily dramatized civil unrest of Claire Denis’s White Material, the aggression is coiled around a ruthless and spookily illogical racial misconception demagogically deployed to empower the starving proletariat—namely, that self-made whites like Campbell have been raping Africa for decades (never mind the myriad blacks that he and countless other land owners employ, innocent workers that we see later punished for their perfidious affiliations). But directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson sagaciously keep the film’s haves-versus-have-nots think-speak from miring the action, instead converting the conflict into that of an old-fashioned siege film. Campell bears the mark of Cane, a higher power wants him removed, and the result resembles a viscerally gentler but more ideologically potent Straw Dogs with vestiges of courtroom melodrama providing “mature” justice.
At times, the movie’s focus might be too constricting: There’s no newsreel exordium explicating Africa’s ethnic tug of war through apartheid or other Zimbabwe-specific uprisings, and we’re only offered a passing description of the titular president’s pseudo-democratic rise to power. But the absence of this potentially controversial and inaccessible history sharpens Campbell’s story into a wry, blistering shiv of ineffable self-preservation; when you’re shooting warning bullets into the dead, sweaty night to signal the goons hiding in the bushes, you’re probably not considering the social subtexts that dragged you there. Bailey and Thompson agilely alternate these dreadful adrenaline-fueled pockets with personal testimonies from the 75-year-old Campbell and his friends and family, persuasively arguing that the bitter, tooth-and-nail struggle protects fragile but deep reaching and hard-won roots. This fierce sensitivity engineers one postmodern masterpiece of a sequence wherein the documentarians record a dialectic between Ben and an irate black; the man, who’s been given a false deed to the farm by the new regime, interestingly has a small, low-res camcorder, and also captures the entire exchange. As the debate over entitlement spirals into spewed vitriol, we feel the crosshair of futile cameras threatening the scene more tensely than the hot rhetoric; Zimbabwe’s tangled crown is too thorny to be smoothed by words or perfunctory video.
And unlike The Cove, which was more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts difficulty of evidence collection (as well as how the significance of the exposed atrocities vacillated wildly when divorced from their social contexts), Mugabe un-condescendingly fetishizes the urgency of capturing actual evidence on tape. After a climactic, off-screen beating takes place, we can feel the lens attempting to corroborate and defend as it caresses purple gashes and flowery bruises; the movie even opens with a title card describing how the directors risked incarceration to snag the footage, a lofty claim paid off in full by the surfeit of poetically calculated shots and edits. Miraculously, the documentary has both the perilous, buzz-worthy backstory of a Burma VJ and the patient, landscape-aware mise-en-scène of a Maysles film. The score’s piddly piano score may add unneeded sprinkles of treacle, and the medias in res structure imposes an ending that feels out of touch with the film’s thoughtful, unflinching tone. But as an essayatic exploration of an uncommonly brutal socio-political micro-climate, Mugabe is as eerily compelling and narratively competent as New Yorker-style fiction.