While this documentary of a white farmer fighting for his land against the bullying dictator Mugabe
and his `land redistribution' program that mostly redistributed land only to his cronies is certainly
a stirring, fascinating battle, there is also something a little simplistic in it's attitudes. Almost
something a little colonial.
No one can defend Mugabe and his treatment of his own country, but the film acts as if there's
no reason for lingering resentment of white, upper-class property holders after centuries of white
domination. Even the lead character talks to and about his black workers in a sort of condescending
`see how well I treat them?' sort of way.
I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on the situation in Zimbabwe (there are some fascinating
back and forth arguments in some of the reviews here, and - in more detail - under 'comments'.)
I just know I can't help feeling things are not so simplistic when the white ex-South African owner
of a huge farm talks about the blacks he works with as if they were children or less than his
Again, I am in no way defending Mugabe. I know enough to see that he is clearly a
ruthless, horrendous dictator, who has done great harm to blacks and white alike. I'm
saying there is another, more subtle issue in this particular story that gets short shrift, making
it feel a bit more like a polemic, and a bit less like an objective view than I wished. I don't
know enough about Zimbabwe, but neither does most of the world. Just a few minutes of
history to deal with the context both the country's history and the farmer's, might have made
me either trust the films' arguments more deeply, or question them more thoroughly. Now I was left
with a vague feeling of 'is this the whole story?'
To quote Roger Ebert's generally positive review; " "Mugabe and the White African"
could certainly have looked more deeply. The filmmakers travel to Kent in England to speak with
the family of Campbell's son-in-law, but never have any meaningful conversations with the African
workers on Campbell's farm."
Or The New York Times: "It should be pointed out, though, that Ms. Bailey and Mr. Thompson
achieve their results largely through the narrowness of their focus. Almost the only voices we
hear are those of the farmers, their families and their lawyers. Other viewpoints are limited to
a rant by the man, a government minister's son, to whom the farm has been promised, and
Mr. Mugabe's recorded voice, including his notorious line that he doesn't mind being seen as
a Hitler by the West."
"It's possible to honor the suffering of the Campbells and the Freeths and to revile the actions of
the Mugabe government and, at the same time, to be uneasy with the emotions the film stirs and
to feel that its one-sidedness and its nearly complete lack of historical and cultural context are problems.
The farm's black work force is frequently on screen and is presented as sympathetic to its employers, but
the workers rarely speak. It's impossible to know what their true, probably complex and contradictory feelings are."
A worthwhile documentary, that gets very tense at times as clandestine footage captures the threats
the farmer and his family live under, and their struggle through the courts. But it misses, or perhaps
intentionally ignores the bigger picture that explores how things got to where they are in the first place.
It's very hard to make any documentary that is explicitly about modern African black on white racism,
without looking at the context and the larger history. Not to forgive or absolve it. But to understand it.
And surely understanding where an evil comes from is a crucial part of any examination of it.