by Peter Byrne
(Swans - February 8, 2010) Can white Europeans say anything pertinent about Africa now? Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson think so. They made a documentary film entitled Mugabe and the White African (UK, 2009, 90 mins.). It was declared the Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards. Bailey presented and discussed the film in January at the Tricycle Theatre on the Kilburn High Road in London. It then went out on limited release.
If Europeans want to talk about Africa there is certainly no better place in Europe to do so than the Tricycle Theatre. For years Kilburn has been a point of imperial reflux. The Irish came first, long before Ireland got its new economy going (and before its subsequent crash). The immigrants came in search of jobs. Thirteen percent of the Kilburn population is Irish born and a greater proportion of Irish descent.
In the pubs, which are cavernous and confident in the Edwardian imperial mode, you will be told with a non-English wink that you are in "Little Eire" or "County Kilburn." At a dark-skinned news dealer's there are Irish provincial newspapers on sale arranged in a row as long as the road home. In another store, where Mom and Pop are Bangladeshi, a whole wall of Roman Catholic bric-a-brac is offered to the devout.
Indians, Pakistanis, and Somalis live in Kilburn. There are more women wearing headscarves than you see in central Istanbul. Five of the six cashiers at a local department store could be seen recently with their heads covered. Anyone who has puzzled over Albanian vowels on a trip through the Balkans will have his ear tweaked again listening to conversations at Kilburn bus stops. Many Kosovars have left their problems at home and searched for new ones in Kilburn.
But it's the Afro-Caribbean population that along with the Irish has left the strongest mark on present-day Kilburn. A thriving Evangelical megachurch has set up in a huge disused art-deco movie house. Commerce slanted not only to West Indians but Africans lines the High Road. Hairdressers offer treatments seldom called for by the thin-haired British. Tropical produce overflows on to the sidewalks cocking a snook at the wet wind blowing in from the Atlantic. Out for a late stroll in good weather you can run into a street barbeque that has materialized from the back of a car. Maybe the cops have been to Jamaica for their vacations because they never turn up till the meat has been carved and handed around on half loaves of bread.
The Tricycle Theatre opened in 1980. Support comes from the London Borough of Brent, the Greater London Authority, and the Arts Council. It now boasts a 235-seat theatre and a 300-seat cinema. A workshop is called the James Baldwin Studio and another creative space bears the name of August Wilson. The Tricycle has always aimed to keep close to the perspectives of the community around it, ignoring the demands of London's West End. Such an approach has paradoxically resulted in many Tricycle productions transferring to the West End, New York, and around the world. It's estimated that the Tricycle's hallmark Tribunal Plays, originating in this immigrant working-class area of London, have been seen by twenty-five million people worldwide.
The five plays were reconstructions based on verbatim reports of public enquiries. Half the Picture dramatized the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry; Nuremberg, the 50th anniversary of the 1946 War Crimes Tribunal; Srebrenica, the UN Rule 61 Hearings; The Colour of Justice, the Stephen Laurence Inquiry (about a race-hate murder); Justifying War, scenes from the Hutton Inquiry. Guantánamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom of 2004 was performed in eleven countries around the world, in the Houses of Parliament, and on Washington's Capitol Hill.
The Tricycle has featured plays by contemporary Irish playwrights (Frank McGuinness, Pat McCabe, Martin Lynch) and by black British and foreign authors (Kwame Kwei-Amah, Bola Agbaje, Abram Hill). Earlier this year its season The Great Game: Afghanistan performed twelve especially commissioned plays.
The documentary film Mugabe and the White African is not about Robert Mugabe or a powerful white man. It recounts the efforts of one white family to hold on to its farm in the face of a government's decision to redistribute the land. The struggle is presented as heroic and does in fact demonstrate a rare stubborn courage and staying power.
Mike Campbell bought his land in 1980 and was assured by the government of independent Zimbabwe that his ownership was secure. But the undertaking was rendered null when a popular vote altered the constitution and gave the government ownership of all land. Toward the end of the 1990s a policy was implemented to divest white farmers of their holdings and redistribute them among blacks. Four thousand farms were taken over.
The times were dire. The country's economy had fallen apart. Inflation raged. The dictatorial government applied its laws with bias. Violence was rife and often served as a political tool. Basic services had disappeared and people were starving. Black Zimbabweans fled the country.
But Bailey and Thompson stick to their story line, putting the plight of the Campbell family center stage. Many white farmers stopped kicking against the pricks and simply pulled out. We witness others forced to leave by marauding bands that were tolerated if not directed by the government. These expulsions are shown to be heartbreaking, as they surely were. Families bade goodbye forever to their homes and under duress loaded their possessions onto trucks.
The Campbells, however, sit tight. When a nighttime incursion on their farm occurs, Mike goes to his gunroom and takes down a serious-looking rifle. Then he and his son-in-law Ben Freeth drive out into the night. For a moment we seem to have stumbled into a western and the wagons are drawing into a circle. But no howling Indians appear and the noble browed Mike only fires a couple of times into the air. Ben assures us that they don't want to hurt anyone. They simply want to show that their farm will be defended.
The directors had to shoot much of their documentary undercover. They had no permission to film in Zimbabwe and could have been thrown in prison. This has the effect of giving everything photographed a special significance: it has been wafted away from under the nose of the tyrant. However, as with candid camera shots, only some undercover work is meaningful. Secrecy pays off, for instance, when the son of a government minister comes to harangue Mike and Ben, insisting they decamp.
What he tells them is to get out of Zimbabwe. They have no place there, he insists, and the reason is that they are white. The young man says his country can only get along with Asians and various brown people. To bend the words of the old blues number, If you're white you're NOT all right.
This verbal aggression is taken as proof by Mike and Ben of the venality of the land grabs. The minister's son drives an expensive car and he knows nothing about farming. Beside his crudeness, their stand (it's implied) is just and honourable. But such a reading leads them to a conclusion out of sync with the realities on the ground. They will challenge the government in the international court of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Their contention is that they are true Zimbabweans and are being subject to racial discrimination.
Technically they are right. They are no less right that Mugabe is a ruthless and desperate politician. It's true moreover that the seizing of the white farms lowers food production and leaves their black employees jobless.
But the fact, big as a continent, that Mike and Ben prefer not think about is that the white man colonized Africa and he can't hope to escape the consequences. There is something ludicrous in the farmers' insistence that their personal virtues have buried the past and that they now have lessons in human rights to teach Africa. Decisions on individuals in international courts are not going to obliterate a history that rode over Africans like a juggernaut.
It's only perhaps in their religiosity that the Mike and Ben seem to have some inkling that they belong to an enemy race. Their bible thumping is self-serving. It's rather late in the day for men come from Europe to declare on African soil -- as Ben does -- that we are all God's children.
In the cutting room the directors seize upon the Campbell-Freeth Christian refrain to build Mike and Ben into something like martyrs to their faith. Their visits to the SADC hearings in Namibia shape up like some modest farmers' Gethsemane. They insist that their case is a matter of principle. They are fighting the good fight for everyone, they say, but it appears rather to be especially for anyone who has property that might be taken over. We fear that the Campbell clan is simply entrenched too deeply to alter its life plan and leave the farm as prudence and history would dictate.
Months pass. Mike and Ben make several trips to Namibia but each time the Mugabe government gets the hearing postponed. Finally, back on their farm, both men and Mike's wife Angela are attacked by a mob and severely beaten. The film shows us their battered and bloody faces with insistence, and we follow their treatment in hospital. Our familiarity with the family in good health makes their altered state a shock. Mike is suddenly a befogged old man with smashed fingers and a swollen head. Angela has a broken arm. Ben's skull has been cracked, a serious operation being necessary to save his life.
But bandaged and broken the two men survive. Ben, joined by his father from England, appears again in the Namibia courtroom. This time the Zimbabwe obstruction fails and the court comes to a decision: the Campbells must not be removed from their property for reasons of race. Much is made of this first victory of an African citizen in an international court. When the Zimbabwean deputy attorney general is asked if Mike will be safe on his land, he says he can't see why not.
The climax comes off stage. Mugabe's voiceover announces that he will not recognize the decision of the international court, which would in effect undo thousands of land takeovers. Then we read on screen that the Campbell home and buildings have been burnt to the ground and that the family has left the farm but not the country. They haven't given up.
Mugabe and the White African has been shaped as the heroic story of one family's determination. It needed a villain and there's no better man for the role than Robert Mugabe. But even a villain needs to be properly introduced and the film doesn't do more than offer a sketchy caricature. The lurid quote plucked from one of his campaign speeches does heavy duty: "Then let me be Hitler tenfold." The statement is actually prefaced by an "If" clause. Equally, too much is made of the president's throwaway line "Zimbabwe is mine." Our directors should know that the game of pulling words out of context from politicians' oratory on the stump can just as easily be played in America and Europe as in Africa. Mugabe rigger of elections, enemy of the white race, and dispenser of violence is as far as the filmmakers venture into a description of their bogeyman. They never risk an answer to a nagging question: Why do we meet so many Africans, decent people and not at all bloodthirsty, who refuse to condemn Mugabe?
Apart from his shadowy figure the dramatis personae have been limited to the gallant Campbell clan, the badmouthing minister's son and the mainly silent "good" blacks employed on the disputed farm. (With families, they number 500 souls, which gives some idea of the size of the enterprise.) We wait in vain for someone standing in for the Zimbabwe population as a whole, which by all reports has reached the limits of human suffering. All we get are fearful reflections in the eyes of whites and of their workers that picture marauders out there in the night ready to pounce on benevolent farmers. Are the farm invaders all thugs? Wouldn't it be worth learning what the members of the dreaded militias actually think and feel? Anyone familiar with the European take on the peasant revolt against British colonial rule in Kenya in the 1950s will tread carefully here. The demonizing of the Mau Mau permitted a thousand hangings of Kenyan peasants, often for offences like possessing firearms. (The French in Algeria hanged only half that number.)
We were shown the ordeal of the residents of the Campbell farm down to the blood dripping from their foreheads, but three million Zimbabweans have been driven by hunger to cross the border into South Africa. It would have been enlightening to have their misfortunes set against those of the white farmers. If the Campbells never get back to their farm there will always be a place for them in Kent, England, where Ben's father lives and whose comfortable home we have been treated to a glimpse of. But the Zimbabweans in South Africa are pariahs, lucky if they have canvas over their heads.
That Mugabe and the White African needed a much wider lens came out at the Tricycle's question and answer session on the film. Lucy Bailey was asked why she didn't consider all of Mugabe's life in her portrayal. His youthful sojourns in British colonial prisons surely were a factor in his politics. Others wanted to know why in the ocean of African misfortune she had zeroed in on the Campbells' little island. She replied that she was not doing Zimbabwean history and had to tell a story that the public could identify with; i.e., the suffering of people who looked like that public and like herself. Bailey's answers might have satisfied England and Europe, but Kilburn, with its own view of empire, polished its doubts.
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