Mugabe Versus 'The White African,' Mike Campbell Mike Campbell farmed his land in Zimbabwe for decades, until President Robert Mugabe's government told him he couldn't own his land anymore — because he was white. In Mugabe and the White African, filmmakers Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey tell Campbell's story.
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Mugabe Versus 'The White African,' Mike Campbell

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Mugabe Versus 'The White African,' Mike Campbell

Mugabe Versus 'The White African,' Mike Campbell

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NEAL CONAN, host: Farmer Mike Campbell worked his land for decades. He built what he called Mount Carmel into a community of more than 500. Women worked in the linen shop, men in the fields. The farm and its people prospered, but the farm is in Zimbabwe. Mike Campbell is white, and the government of Robert Mugabe wants to turn all white-owned farms over to blacks. Mount Carmel was designated to Peter Chamada, identified as the son of a government minister. A new documentary captures the confrontation between the owner and the man who would replace him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN")

PETER CHAMADA: We are so tired of you guys.

BEN FREETH: Can a white person not be a Zimbabwean anymore?

CHAMADA: Not anymore. We don't want you anymore. Get it, right? We don't.

FREETH: But we are Zimbabweans.

CHAMADA: We don't care whether you're Indian, Malawi, Kalanga, whatnot. We just don't want you in particular. It will never be a colony again, this country.

FREETH: I realize that, Mr. Chamada.

CHAMADA: It will never be a colony.

FREETH: Then we missed...

CHAMADA: I will sleep here until you are out. And I mean it. I want you out.

CONAN: "Mugabe and the White African" tells the story of Mike Campbell's suit against Robert Mugabe and the government of Zimbabwe. The film premieres tonight as part of the POV series on PBS. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson join us from the studios of the BBC in Bath, England. And thanks very much for being with us.

LUCY BAILEY: Hi. Thanks for having us.

CONAN: And you filmed this movie in 2002, 2008, and as it's explained, much of it shot surreptitiously. You were not allowed to film openly.

ANDREW THOMPSON: Yeah, that's right. In 2008, it was an election year in Zimbabwe, and a complete press ban existed in the country at that time. So while sort of starting out making this film, we knew it was going to be a tricky film in terms of getting in and out the country successfully, but we did. (Unintelligible) to show for it.

CONAN: And you went in as - I don't know how you got your equipment in. It had to have been pretty obvious.

BAILEY: Well, basically we had to smuggle our equipment in and out of the country. We had to go through different borders. We had to go to quite extreme measures to disguise the equipment. We had to weld lenses into car doors and in jerry cans. And we took quite a lot of risks.

CONAN: And this is, obviously, a lot more than Mike Campbell. There are 4,000 farmers like him. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa, would export food. And now, of course, it's a disaster area with rampant inflation, all due, the film argues, to land reform.

BAILEY: Yeah, I think that's correct. It's been a disastrous policy mainly because it wasn't true land reform. It was essentially a land-grab. So Mugabe was taking the land, giving it to his cronies and political operatives, who then weren't farming it. They didn't know anything about farming. It certainly wasn't given to the black majority or to black farmers, and that's a real tragedy.

CONAN: Would it have been any less - the film argues strongly that this policy is racist. But would it have been any less racist to have given it to black farmers to take it away from white farmers?

THOMPSON: I don't think so, no. I think the point of this - the point of the film and the point of the court case that Mike challenges Robert Mugabe to in the film is that if land reform is going to happen, it's got to happen under international law. And the Southern African Development Community, the SADC court was set up in 2007. So this was the first court case. This is the first case that was heard in front of that court. And as I say, it was set up primarily, you know, for farmers like Mike Campbell or for citizens of the Southern African Development Community region to take their legitimate, you know, problems to. And I think that's where the court has failed.

CONAN: The court case seems immensely frustrating. As viewers, it's a lot easier to watch the scenes filmed in Windhoek in Namibia because you do have access there and can clearly film more openly. But the - every time it goes to court, it seems there's another delay, another postponement, all, it seems, to the benefit of the government's case, the government of Zimbabwe.

BAILEY: Yeah. I mean, it was an extraordinary situation and very frustrating for us. I think all of us felt that it would never actually happen.

Yeah, you just couldn't tell what was going to happen next and which way it's going to go. But certainly, the tension got worse and worse. Every delay you kind of were dreading the worse. We kind of had this feeling that something bad is going to happen.

CONAN: Mike Campbell is from, originally, South Africa but bought his farm in Zimbabwe after independence. It's not a holdover from the colonial era. He paid a fair price for it. It was a willing seller, willing buyer, got a loan for it, paid the loan off. And as the film describes, I think it was one year after he paid off the loan, the government changed the law and said we're going to take it away from you.

BAILEY: Absolutely. I think, you know, that's why Mike was so outraged. He'd worked hard for this farm. He hadn't inherited it. He hadn't stolen it from anyone. He bought it legally. It was offered to the Zimbabwean government after independence. They refused it. They didn't want land. So, you know, there was Mike, working incredibly hard for this successful farm, employing people. It was a very happy community, and it was all destroyed.

CONAN: All destroyed. And not just his farm, many, many others as well. In fact, he's one of the most stubborn, I have to say, most stubborn men I've ever seen.

BAILEY: Yes. Stubborn or is he the - a man of most principle? I mean, he was incredibly brave for what he did, and I don't think many people would put the greater good of the nation ahead of, sort of, their own personal life. And that's what he did. And that's a pretty extraordinary thing.

CONAN: The greater good of the nation.

BAILEY: I think that's what he was trying to do, absolutely, yeah. He wasn't taking that fight on just for himself or his family. It was - it's very much for the whole of Zimbabwe, the whole of the community that he employed and supported and worked in.

CONAN: And that question that we heard in that short excerpt from your film, is it possible to be a white man in Zimbabwe anymore, and the answer seems to be no.

THOMPSON: Well, I think the film throws that question out there. And ultimately, it's obviously down to the audience to decide as to whether or not you can be white and African. And I certainly believe that you can be. Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, the other main character in the film thinks so.

CONAN: His son-in-law, (unintelligible) .

His son-in-law, the other main character in the film, would say so. So - but, yeah, I mean, it poses a question, and I think it's really up for the audience to decide whether you can be white and African.

Over the period that you're shooting the film, we see instance after instance of a white farmer and his or her - his family being intimidated, beaten up, forced off their land, which is simply invaded by militias.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and I think that's the whole - the point about this. This is not legitimate land reform. This is Robert Mugabe hiding behind a veil of so-called legitimate land reform. But actually, all the land is going to his, sort of, his political cronies. There's something they call the chef list in the film, and it's illustrated very well by Mike's lawyers. And it's a list of political operatives, of air vice-marshals, of members of the leading ZANU-PF Party, who are all benefiting from land reform. But, as Lucy said earlier, they're not farmers.

This is not about redistributing land to the poor, black, working majority as it was initially set up to do. This is land and the wealth of the country going to political cronies and friends and colleagues of Robert Mugabe.

CONAN: The - as you said, this farm was bought and paid off under an initial set of laws. The government then changed those laws, changed the constitution to make this kind of redistribution, as they would call it, of land legal. And that's what the court case was challenging, saying you can't do that because the only basis that it was being done under was because I'm white.

BAILEY: Yes. Essentially, Mike was saying his case to Mugabe on grounds of racial discrimination and human rights abuses. It was both of those things.

CONAN: And as the case grinds its way through the courts, there is a parallel operation going on in Zimbabwe. Again, the courts are in Namibia, in Windhoek. In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, the pressure is mounting on Mike and his family because of the - from the militias who continually invade. And at one point, we see they come in the night and beat up one of the guards, the people there trying to prevent the farm from being destroyed. And there is - intimidation is the only word you can think of.

BAILEY: Absolutely. And when we started the film, that wasn't the start of the intimidation. It has been going on for many years prior to them actually taking their case to court. And I, you know, obviously, by taking their case to the international court, their heads we're above the parapets even more.

THOMPSON: I think the violence tends to spike around election times anyhow. And as they say, when we started making this film, we weren't aware that there was going to be a general election in Zimbabwe in 2008. So it worked well for us as filmmakers. As we say, we got the two play - the stories playing out. You got very intimate court case playing out in Namibia with Mike versus everything that's going on at the wider political situation in Zimbabwe. Interestingly, there's a new election next year. It's penciled for 2012 in Zimbabwe. And according to our colleagues in Zimbabwe, you're starting to get a re-escalation of the violence that you saw in 2008.

CONAN: And, at one point, we see Mike giving succor to the members of the opposition, the MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, as they've been victims of violence too and makes it - cleans them up, gives them some food and some gasoline to get where they're going,

BAILEY: Absolutely. And, you know, I think people think that this is about race. It's not about race. It's much more about Mugabe trying to retain political power. And he can see, Mike was a really well-loved and respected member of the community. And we know his friends in the MDC came to him when they were in trouble and, you know, MDC have suffered massively and so have many, many other people. And Mike was one of the few people who stood up and spoke out. But, you know, the climate (unintelligible) at that time and that still exists. It's very difficult to describe unless you, you know, been there and experienced it.

CONAN: There's a moment of incredible triumph, when after all of these procedural delays and endless determinations the court in Windhoek rules completely in Mike's favor. And indeed, in the middle of a critical point in the proceedings, the Zimbabwean government simply has no answer and walks out.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And it was a pretty extraordinary moment. And I think that kind of sums up their whole case. They didn't have a case. They had no option but to walk out. They've managed to successfully delay the hearing three times. And on the fourth time and the final hearing, they had no case to answer. So they had no choice but to walk out. But it was great for us as filmmakers to be in there at the court at the time and actually witness that.

BAILEY: Well, I mean, I think they did have a choice and - but they chose to do that. And that shows an extraordinary level of disrespect for law, for international law. And that kind of sets a mark. And it was an incredibly thing to capture that on film because I don't think it happens very often.

CONAN: Then they utterly ignore the courts rulings. And, of course, Zimbabwe is a signatory to the SADC. And then the next scene we see is a still photograph of Mount Carmel burning.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, it's tragic what happened to the farm, the farm workers and to the family themselves since that day of that — the final court case, when they won their case. Well, I don't want to giveaway too much to viewers who might tune in tonight and watch the film, but it's tragic what's happened to them as a family and them as a farm. But it symbolizes what's happened across the border in Zimbabwe. Blacks and whites, millions of people, have been forced into this situation with Robert Mugabe's regime and in particular the land reform.

CONAN: And is it possible — or will you make another film about Zimbabwe, about the Movement for Democratic Change, for example?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I'd love to. If we can get in the country, I'd love to.

CONAN: It is...

THOMPSON: If they'll have us.

CONAN: It is difficult to get into the country, or is it difficult for anybody or you in particular?

THOMPSON: I think it's difficult for media and for journalists. I think to go wandering out of the border with a camera, you'd be given short shrift and sent back over. But...

BAILEY: Us, in particular, it might be tricky.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I'm sure they're mad at the moment.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us today and good luck with the film.

THOMPSON: Good stuff. Thank you.

BAILEY: Thanks. Thanks very much.

CONAN: "Mugabe and the White African" is the name of the film. It debuts tonight on PBS as part of POV series. And Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson are the filmmakers. And they joined us from the studios of the BBC in Bath. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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