I love a good documentary. I love to learn about new things and hear people’s story, a chance I might not normally get. I used to think that this form of storytelling was somehow more “pure,” as if somehow documentary films were somehow less fictitious than the Hollywood movies which were made-up, make believe – fiction. The difference with documentaries is that they are much more subtle in their spinning of fiction, choosing to manipulate real life in ways that highlight certain causes or beliefs or ‘truths.’ An obvious example of this is Michael Moore’s documentaries but it happens no less in other titles in the genre.
Last night I sat down and watched “Mugabe and the White African,” a documentary chronicling the plight of two white farmers in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s rule. I had been searching for something to watch and the movie review sites were trumpeting this one as the best, Rottentomatoes.com even going so far as to put it in their Top 10 Best of 2010 movies with a 97% approval rating with reviewers stating: “The film serves as a testimony on behalf of all of Mugabe’s victims” (The Sunday Times, UK); “This extraordinary profile in courage starkly bears passionate and brave witness as two flinty farmers stand up for their rights in a good vs. evil fight” (filmforward.com), and the Los Angeles Times’ critic writing that the two farmers are “two unforgettable heroes.”
I watch a lot of films about Africa, read a lot about Africa and write a lot about Africa so it seemed like an interesting watch on an evening when my wife was out at work.
The film shows the farmers’ fight to keep their farms all the while Mugabe’s government tries to evict them, harass them and ultimately beats them up and successfully seizes their land. It is meant to be a sad story, and it is–highlighting the plight of the White farmers in Zimbabwe.
It is also a blatant attempt to rewrite history, to cast the White farmers in a new less revealing light, to gain international sympathy, and to bury the sordid colonial history of Zimbabwe under a barrage of White apologetics.
Throughout the film I couldn’t help but feel that this was a big puff piece designed to showcase the farmers in a certain light: not as the monsters of colonialism that they’ve so often been cast in, but as old men who are clinging to their precious homes in the face of crazed dictators, as the real victims in the story. It’s a grand piece of propaganda which succeeds primarily by ignoring Zimbabwe’s history, by making no mention of what has gone before.
When we see White farmers being evicted, threatened, and beaten it is without the knowledge that Blacks were routinely mistreated, beaten and moved off of their land by White farmers and their government. When the White farmers talk of being vulnerable and scared, in my mind it only seems to echo the past and serves to remind the viewer about how the Black population must have felt when they were dominated by White rule, scared as to what might happen next. There is no mention of the horrors of Rhodesia, the White power ideologies that were all too similar to apartheid South Africa, the way Cecil Rhodes and the British played Ndebeles against Shonas to grab land and power, the long ugly history of White rule in Zimbabwe which ended with a nasty, withdrawn retreat.
In this Youtube video (part 4 of the film posted online), the same farmer in the film, Mike Campbell, states “I didn’t steal anyone’s land” and in “Mugabe and the White African” he proudly shows his deed to the land, making sure the viewer is reminded that he bought the land “fair and square.” It reminds me of a statement in Dionne Brand’s book, “A Map to the Door of no Return”, where she talks about Canada, another past colony – “It never occurs to them [White Canadians] that they live on the cumulative hurt of others. They want to start the clock of social justice when they arrived. But one is born into history, one isn’t born into a void.” The farmers in the film are seen in a void, as the beginning, as the first victims.
Great pains are made in the film to equate the situation of the farmers to the Holocaust. A Mugabe quote where he compares himself to Hitler plays ominously at the beginning of the film, a newspaper headline comparing White Rodesians to Holocaust Jews is displayed prominently. Not only is the comparison grossly out of line in terms of severity, but it reminds me of an Aime Cesaire quote where he states, “What he [the White European] does not forgive Hitler is not the crime in itself, the crime against the white man, it is the inflicting on Europeans of European colonialist procedures which until now were reserved for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.” If we are going to talk about the Holocaust, the apt comparison is colonial Rhodesia where Whites ruled supremely, where discrimination and killings based on color/race/culture was built into the system and were routine.
Not only is there great pains to paint the White farmers as victims of a Holocaust but Brand’s mention of ‘social justice’ in her quote is also pertinent, as the film works hard to project the farmers as benevolent, caring, God-fearing, and caring men–as White saviors. They employ five hundred people (with special mention of women and children) who depend on them for wages “if they don’t work for us, where else will they work”; they are also a safe haven “they know that when they come to us, we’re there to help”. But these platitudes ring hollow, these are merely the paternalistic, colonial phrases heard elsewhere and which Mike Campbell himself echoes in the previously mentioned Youtube video, where he explicitly states that, before the White people came to Africa, the Blacks couldn’t feed or take care of themselves and if they were to ever come to their senses, they would choose to let White farmers stay in Zimbabwe so that they could eat instead of starve. I kid you not. Without White intervention, Africa would have starved to death and without further White intervention it will starve to death. As writers such as Memmi and Fanon have noted, colonial power works by scripting the colonizer as an innocent, benevolent and imperial savior in contrast to the hapless, savage and beast-like colonized. The White farmers in Zimbabwe follow the script.
The film is a thinly veiled attempt to see Whites as victims, saviors and heroes against the craziness of Mugabe. An article by Philip Howard talks about how Whites need to feel that they can speak from a position of victimhood to somehow legitimate their claims to ‘good, non-racist behavior’, when in fact all this does is show that they don’t even recognize their own power, position and privilege. The film, in this way, fails to see the power and privilege that the White farmers have – they employ hundreds of people, live in British-styled homes where Mike is seen drinking scotch after a hard day, they can afford legal counsel and trips abroad, etc…
And yet, the film chooses to prominently highlight a quote at the beginning of the film, a quote where the White farmers claim: “We’re all in this together under Mugabe, we’re all the same.” But the Blacks in the film don’t drink scotch or drive Range Rovers. In fact, they are completely silent throughout the film. They are seen taking orders or apprehensively smiling when the White farmers try to joke with them, silently staring when they are told they need to behave while the master is gone. There is no mention of how Mugabe’s reign has destroyed most Blacks in the country as well. Instead we see Blacks as either passive servants content to have the Whites provide for them (like the ones on the farm) or crazed villains, as shown by the ravings of a government lackey who comes to take the Campbell farm – the type of Black that Campbell states in the Youtube video that he will kill many of before they take his farm from him.
When the farmers go to Windhoek, Namibia to have their case heard and it is postponed for a second time, they bitterly talk about the “heavy irony” of delayed justice, yet the move is filled with such heavy ironies that go unspoken. When the farmers travel to Windhoek to have their court case heard, the camera focuses on them driving down Robert Mugabe Blvd., highlighting that ironic passage. Yet, in the very next frame, the car continues down a road which has a street sign stating “Van Den Heeverstraat”, named after a famed White South African writer who celebrated Afrikaaner culture during apartheid.
Irony after irony: The White farmer’s lawyer states that, if they lose the case against Mugabe, Africa will have a precedent that allows discrimination on the basis of race–ignoring the 500 year precedent that the Europeans have already left Africa, one which clearly outlined the multitude of ways that discrimination was allowed based on race.
The irony of stating that there is no difference between Blacks and Whites under Mugabe, while the setting of the scene sees the Whites drive the truck and the Blacks ride in the back.
The irony of White farmers claiming that God put them there for purpose, when Whites said the same thing a mere 30 years ago in Zimbabwe, except their ‘purpose’ was to dominate the Zimbabweans under the guise of civilization and religion, bringing White power rule in God’s name.
The movie fails to highlight the great irony in hearing White European lawyers argue that democracy is not merely about majority rule but about protecting basic human rights, basic human rights that White Europeans ignored in Zimbabwe for hundreds of years. I guess these basic human rights only need to be protected when White human rights are at stake.
None of this is to take away from the violence that White farmers have suffered in Zimbabwe – it is devastating and appalling. But to position this story as somehow separate from history is wrong. There are events that led up to Mugabe becoming leader of Zimbabwe and events which pushed him to take the stance he has, events that modeled for him what ‘government’ was and how leaders should act. There were events that led Blacks not to trust Whites, events which might make them want to exact revenge – events which don’t exactly place Whites in the victim role.
I also understand the sadness of farmers like Campbell, who went into debt to buy the farm and now he is losing everything – it’s hard to see what you’ve worked for taken away. Just ask the indigenous Shona and Ndebele. And as much as the movie tries to cast Campbell as innocent, he isn’t. He knowingly bought into a system, into a Rhodesia, that was built on oppressing Black people as much as possible, built on denying them basic human rights to maintain White privilege in society. He is not innocent. In the Youtube video and other clips he is seen espousing typical White racist ideology that buttressed Rhodesia for so long– the proud, White arrogance that believed there was nothing in Africa before the Whites came, just starving, barbaric people in need of saving.
Finally, it’s a question of belonging. The film tries to position the farmers as having long-standing rights to African land, to being African themselves. The one farmer asks, “Can you be White and American? Yes! Can you be White and Australian? Yes! Why can’t you be White and African?” Ignoring the fact that America and Australia are countries and Africa is a continent, this type of thinking is exactly the problem. It is the type of thinking that ignores the realities – that being White in America is about building on the oppression of the First Nations people and that to be White in Australia is building on the oppression of the Aborigines. To be White in Zimbabwe means building on the oppression of Indigenous Ndebele and Shona peoples. This film not only ignores this but also tries to obscure it, instead hoping to posit White farmers as outside of history.
As this other fine review of the movie states, the danger of this movie is that is posits the white farmers as trying to help, as just being ‘good guys’. Too many other people are trying to pass themselves off as ‘good guys’ in Africa (see: International Development), there’s no need for any more. Thank you.