“Mugabe and the White African” compellingly documents the struggles of Mike Campbell and his brood to hang on to their Zimbabwe farm in the face of President Mugabe’s “land reform,” which apparently consists of kicking out whites and redistributing their property to his ministers, cronies and relatives. Braving intimidation and beatings, Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, take their case to the international African court, charging racism and violation of human rights. Potent mix of suspense, pathos and indignation spells a theatrical future, though some might question the filmmakers’ elevation of stubborn property defense to the stature of heroic crusade.
At the pic’s opening, most of Zimbabwe’s white farmers have been driven off their homesteads, and the film observes several more families, friends of the Campbells, being forced to leave under increasingly hostile circumstances. British filmmakers Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson follow 74-year-old Campbell and his wife, daughter and son-in-law as they patrol their land to repel invaders and make the treacherous journey to Namibia for the trial.
Presidential elections loom, heralded by the brutal suppression of all opposition (much to the outrage of governments, media and human rights groups). Even as the country’s economy slides into chaos, the court yields to requests for postponements from Mugabe’s legal team. The Campbells’ position grows steadily more precarious, as gangs of ravaging youths and pompous ministers’ sons circle their land and threaten their safety. When violence erupts, the camera captures its aftermath, visiting Campbell, his wife and Freeth in the hospital after they’ve been badly beaten.
The docu sometimes bears an eerie resemblance to Claire Denis’ brilliant “White Material” in its tense evocation of menace stalking the periphery of the frame. But while Denis’ African fiction centers on whites in denial, caught up in a larger historical drama to which they are largely irrelevant, “Mugabe” places its white subjects centerstage, stressing their legal entitlement in a country that, until relatively recently, denied blacks all legal redress against systemic discrimination.
Indeed with the introduction of Campbell’s English in-laws, whose strong religious beliefs reverberate with positively missionary zeal, the docu almost manages to turn Freeth, wheelchair-bound after his attack, into a martyr to the church of world brotherhood rather than to the cause of private ownership.
Nerve-jangling score and intense editing contribute to the ongoing sense of dread.