After a screening of their harrowing documentary ‘Mugabe and the White African’ at Brighton’s Duke of York’s Picturehouse cinema, Obsessed With Film was lucky enough to catch up with directors Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey as they tour with the film across the country, following great acclaim and success at festivals last year (also earning the duo a BAFTA nomination).
The documentary itself concerns the plight of a determined farmer Mike Campbell and his family (among them his equally determined son-in-law Ben Freeth) as they fight to remain on their farm in Zimbabwe. The film looks at the plight of Campbell as he attempts to take dictator Robert Mugabe’s regime to an African court in order to render his controversial land reform programme illegal. In doing so it focuses on the racist policy of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government in trying (through intimidation and violence) to rid the country of all white landowners and in doing so the film looks more broadly at the erosion human rights for everyone in the troubled republic.
Equal parts hopeful, inspirational and terrifying, ‘Mugabe and the White African’ is a powerful account of life for an oppressed minority in a dictatorial regime. When asked during a Q&A, following the screening, why they had chosen to focus on a white minority in a country with a starving black majority (and an average life expectancy of 35), the filmmakers were keen to say that the difficulties of shooting in the country meant that they were restricted to telling the story they had access to. Having said that, the unique cinematic opportunity presented by the landmark court case and the nature of the principle characters, Mike and Ben, make for a compelling and dramatic story.
Of course, the media restrictions in the country (which has outright banned the BBC from entering) meant that the duo couldn’t simply waltz in and start filming…
How did you manage to shoot covertly whilst still making the film cinematic? Presumably shooting on the farm was easier than outside of it?
Andrew Thompson: We were obviously aware as soon as we decided to make this film that it would involve multiple trips in and out of Zimbabwe, so there was a whole logistical effort surrounding how we were going to get ourselves and our gear in. We wanted to make a film that was going to play to large audiences on a big screen as well as on TV. I’m a cameraman in my day job and it was very important to myself and Lucy that we made a film that would look and sound as good as a Hollywood feature documentary – as it should look. That obviously made our jobs considerably more difficult, because smuggling this larger format broadcast gear into another country is considerably more difficult than going in with a small consumer handycam.
There is some handheld stuff in the movie, which is shot by Mike and Ben…
AT: Yeah we left… we couldn’t obviously be on the ground in Zimbabwe during what became a 12 month shooting period. Initially we were expecting the first court case to be it so our filming period would have been 3 months, but it ran and ran and ran as our film got caught up in the court case and the general election. So we left a small A1 camera out in Zim, which was specifically for Mike and Ben to use for instances such as the confrontation on the lawn and, of course, the night they got beaten up, those early shots of them in hospital in the wheelchair, bleeding into buckets, that was shot on the small camera. It gave me time to then pack my bags and get out with a large format camera and smuggle myself back in. The farm was easier than outside the farm, but then there was always the threat of a knock on the door by the police. We had to constantly be on the move, with secret safe-houses. We would always be separate from the kit when we weren’t filming with it, so if we were pulled over and questioned we never had any gear on us. So it was pretty tricky to film in and off the farm. Those large landscapes you see of Zimbabwe, those were largely filmed off the farm and were a nightmare to do.
Did you do them under cover of darkness?
AT: Yeah, a lot of moving under cover of darkness. Just getting some straightforward GVs and those establishing shots, those landscape shots to give a sense of place, we’d do one GV a day and that would involve breaking the camera down, putting it into cars, driving its component parts separately to the location, reassembling the camera, getting the shot, dismantling it again and all getting back to the farm. So it was hard work.
Lucy Bailey: And the hospital for instance: there were Zanu-PF militia on the door of the hospital. The camera had to be broken down, wrapped up in gift wrap and smuggled in, re-built in the hospital room, filmed for 10 minutes, then break it down and get out again.
Were the hospital workers sympathetic to what you were doing or did you have to hide it from them as well?
LB: We had to hide it from them.
To what extent were you both in personal danger? During the farm invasions for example, where there are people at the gates with machetes, and you guys are thinking…
AT: “They’re at the gates with machetes”, yeah. We had to run a few times and there were definitely a few moments where it got hairy, but…
LB: It was calculated risk all the time. We had to weigh up when it was sensible to be there and not to be there. It was a risk, but we felt it was an important story to tell. So you don’t think about yourself, you’re more focused on trying to do what you’ve set out to do and the safest way to do it.
AT: The key is to make rules before you go out and to stick to those rules. What you don’t want to do is break those rules because then you find yourself…
LB: Taking silly risks…
AT: … in all sorts of trouble. To be fair Ben and Mike were good advisers, if they said something was too dangerous or they felt uncomfortable us taking the camera out and having the camera with us, then we wouldn’t. We would largely go of their advice.
I’ve heard you say before that you went into Zimbabwe undercover as tourists…
Now, the documentary did quite a good job of making me feel Zimbabwe is a country racist against white people. But you’ve also said you’d encourage others to go if they get the chance. As someone who doesn’t know Zimbabwe, but who has seen the documentary, I’m thinking “I don’t want to go to Zimbabwe”!
LB: It’s not a racist country by any stretch of the imagination. Race relations have always been pretty good in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is the one who has made this an issue. I wouldn’t say that, as a white person, you are subjected to horrendous racism at all.
But are there Zanu-PF people looking at you in the street?
LB: As a tourist you can still go and have a great time in a very beautiful country.
More of a boring one now… how was it funded? I’m sure simple things like getting insured would have been problematic on this film…
LB: All those relatively simple things on other shoots were difficult. Funding was very difficult. The complexities of the film and documentaries are pretty hard to get funded anyway. So we had to start it off ourselves and gradually, once we had something to show people, we had some brave investors who came on board. We had Molinare who sponsored our post production and Film Agency Wales, so it came slowly and we couldn’t have made it without the support of those people. We have built up a lot of debt we hope the film can pay off!
Good luck with that! You say you can’t show the film in Zimbabwe, but have the regime commented on the film? Obviously they are aware of the film…
AT: They are.
LB: I don’t know that they’ve seen it, as such. There has been some rubbishy propaganda stuff written, but that’s as much as we know. They’re aware of it and they’re angry about it.
One of the things I was wondering about was how lucky you must have counted yourselves that Ben, in particular, is so articulate. You could have made a film about some people with just as interesting a story but who weren’t as good at speaking to the camera. Ben says some poignant and clever things.
AT: I think, when we first thought about making this film, we knew that it was going to be an interesting story, but if you haven’t got good characters to tell that story – regardless of how good a story it is – it’s dead in the water. Almost the moment I met Mike and Ben in Namibia in what is now the first part of the film, I knew instantly that they were going to be great characters. Mike is a brilliant one-liner. When Mike was in hospital, he’d been beaten up and his wife had been beaten up and was lying next to him and he’s still defiant about his battle and saying that the court case will go on – it’s extraordinary stuff. Ben worked with him as a double act, really. Ben is a great explainer, very patient and wonderful with words. So we were very lucky that our two central characters were such strong characters. But what we didn’t know when we started filming in Namibia was just how strong the supporting cast was going to be. There were tremendous families back home, Laura and Angela.
Some of the hardest stuff for you guys must have been in the UK, talking to Ben’s family about the situation…
LB: Ben’s parents were great. We were really lucky Ben and Mike were good characters, but we wouldn’t have made the film if they weren’t good characters, so it was collaborative and we had a great relationship with the families. One of the skills you need as a filmmaker is to have people trust you and they trusted us and it certainly became very collaborative.
One of the strongest parts for me was when Ben has been beaten up and he says how he doesn’t want revenge. Not to get too high handed about it, but in a culture where seemingly every other film is a revenge fantasy movie, that was refreshing. To see someone who has been through genuine hardship and doesn’t have that response.
LB: It’s an extraordinary thing to put the greater good of the country above self-preservation, it’s a really rare thing and it is refreshing and I think that’s why we enjoy making documentary films because there are the most incredible characters with the most incredible stories to be told. And they’re real life heroes, they’re not Hollywood heroes.
What are Mike and Ben up to now? You say at the end of the film that they no longer have their farm.
LB: Their houses were burnt down, the farm isn’t being farmed, the invaders are there. They are in Zimbabwe in safe-houses basically in Harare. Mike is sadly in a wheelchair now because of the brain damage from the beatings. It’s really sad.
AT: He describes it as them making him an old man over night. He’s unrecognisable from the Mike you see in the film.
That’s terrible. It seemed, from the hospital scene in the film, that Ben was the worst affected…
AT: I know. That’s what’s extraordinary.
LB: That’s how it was at the time. It seemed like “gosh, Mike’s bounced back quickly” and Ben is the one on the verge of death, but subsequently took a turn for the worst, being that age, losing everything, the depression, the brain injury. Ben is incredible, he’s now full-time on the legal proceedings and trying to get the judgement registered and he is nowhere near to giving up. He’s never going to give up. He’ll carry on.
Without wanting to sound crass, did you ever feel your ending of the film was ruined by how events turned out? Because you have the happy ending of the verdict and it seems they’ll be able to keep their farm, but then you have the text telling us that they have subsequently lost it. It’s a kick in the pants.
AT: The ending has changed, because when we first finished the film and it had its world premiere in Canada, the ending was that they’d won the court case and could go back to the farm and we just had that ominous quote from the Prince saying “I don’t know why they shouldn’t be safe on their farm”. Of course, subsequently the farm got burnt down. I don’t think it spoils the ending. You get that brief euphoric high, but suddenly you’re brought back down to reality. But I don’t think it’s a depressing film. Ultimately it is a film about hope and courage and the tenacity and perseverance of people like Ben and Mike, their belief in the rule of law and a better Zimbabwe – that’s the backbone of the film.
I like to think I’m a person of conviction, but I’m watching the film thinking “get out of there!” It’s very honourable that they decide to stay and fight in spite of the personal danger they are in…
AT: Well they’ve kind of also got nowhere else to go. Ben was born in the UK, but Mike is a fifth generation African. He’s not a colonialist. His family have been there for hundreds of years. Where does he go? He can’t get a British passport.
What has happened to Mike’s friends who we see evicted in the film?
LB: Her husband is in the UK, trying to earn some money and she’s stayed in Zimbabwe because her elderly mother isn’t well, doesn’t have a British passport and can’t go anywhere else.
AT: What you’re seeing is the genocide of a white minority in a black country. If it was the other way around, if this was 4,000 black farmers being persecuted in a white country, there would be an absolute outrage. Because it seems to be white farmers in a black majority country, somehow the world is prepared to turn a blind eye.
Isn’t there an understandable liberal uncomfortable-ness with that idea? On the face of it you can see Mike’s farm as a plantation, with a white landowner in a predominantly black country. Your film points out that the people on his farm are treated fairly and those we see clearly want to stay and work there – but you can see why some might find the situation problematic?
AT: Well, some people have an issue with a white employer and black workers, but every time I pick up a telephone to call my bank my telephone is routed to India, to effectively 24 hour sweatshops of row-upon-row of underpaid Indian workers dealing with my bank inquiries.
LB: [Mike’s farm] It’s a good community and a successful commercial farm. Farmers employ people and it isn’t anything to do with the colour of skin. It’s a commercial farm, it has an owner and it has workers and they have a good relationship and a successful community and people wanted to work there.
What have you guys got lined up next? Have you got any documentaries planned?
AT: We’ve got ideas…
LB: If someone wants to fund them then please tell them to get in touch with us!
That’s interesting because obviously you’ve made a phenomenally well-received documentary, but you still have trouble getting a film off the ground.
LB: Funding documentaries is a nightmare and it’s left us quite emotionally and financially drained… but we love to do them if we can.
AT: It’s very exciting, creatively, to make a film. You’re always on the look out for good stories. This isn’t a film that came to us instantly. We were looking to make a film about Zimbabwe for some time before we heard about this court case and there are other things we are interested in. We’re interested in Africa, but there are lots of subject matters we’d like to tackle and loads of stories we’d like to tell. But once you’ve found those stories, it’s about working out how on earth you’re going to get to film them and find good characters to tell those stories.
Thanks very much for your time and good luck funding another film.