Case Number 20463: Small Claims Court


First Run Features // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // January 8th, 2011

The Charge

Welcome To The Country Where Being White Is A Crime.

The Case

There is a fine line between fighting for justice and being delusional. The hypnotic and occasionally hard to watch documentary Mugabe And The White African presents the story of two men trying to uphold the rule of law, but who appear to lose their perspective as the stakes rise higher and higher.

Mike Campbell and his son-in-law Ben Freeth were white farmers in Zimbabwe. Campbell had the legal title to the land and had run the farm for about 25 years. However, in 2001, after paying off his mortgage, Campbell received notice from the government of Zimbabwe that it intended to seize the land. This was part of a larger policy of "land reform" by the government of Robert Mugabe that was intended to acquire, redistribute and resettle land owned by white farmers. In theory, the purpose of the land reforms was to address the historical inequities of colonial rule by redistributing the land to the largely impoverished black citizenry. In practice, most of the land acquired by the state has been transferred to government insiders and "war veterans" with no experience in running farms, or any particular desire to learn. The resulting outcomes have been deleterious to the country's food supply, economy, and standard of living.

Mugabe And The White African follows the futile attempt by Campbell and Freeth to keep their farm from being expropriated. They seek to protect their land by pursuing a legal challenge before an international African court, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal located in Namibia. Their case is that they (and other white farmers) had been denied access to challenge the expropriation in domestic courts and that the land reform program was an act of racial discrimination against white farmers. As the men wait for the SADC Tribunal to hear their case (the Zimbabwean government makes multiple attempts to delay the proceedings) they try to keep the farm operating in the face of threats from the man (a government minister's son) who has been promised the land, and hear that neighboring farms have been attacked by war veterans. Of course, it gets worse. Martin, his wife, and Ben are themselves kidnapped, severely beaten, and tortured by a group of thugs in an effort to get them to drop the court challenge and leave the farm. Incredibly, the family stays firm.

Up until the point of the beatings Mugabe And The White African (and completely setting aside the historical circumstances that allowed whites to gain control of productive farmland in Africa in the first place) is a completely captivating documentary about a small group of individuals fighting for their rights against a faceless, despotic government. Mike and Ben appear to be decent, hard working, family men with a legitimate grievance and interested in pursuing the greater good through the court challenge. There's much tension and it's impossible not to root for them.

After the beatings, however, it is hard to fathom why Mike and Ben continue to press a case that is putting not just their own lives at risk, but also those of their wives, children, and grandchildren. Isn't discretion the better part of valor? Wouldn't it at least make sense to relocate your loved ones to a safe place to protect them? Further, it is clear from the very beginning that the Mugabe government has nothing but contempt for the SADC Tribunal hearings and little respect for the rule of law more generally, so Mike and Ben's expectation that winning the case would make things safe for them is either tragically naïve or outright fantasy. Indeed, the epilogue to the film makes the quixotic nature of the legal challenge sadly apparent. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here (it was co-directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson) appear to have grown too close to the subjects to render a more balanced analysis of the situation. As a result, the film is so firmly fixated on the injustices perpetrated against the Campbell and Freeth family that it never explores other dimensions of the story.

The video and audio are fairly strong. This is surprising because most of the filming had to be done on the sly (the government of Zimbabwe would not have allowed the filmmakers into the country had they known what they were doing). The picture is clean with good color for the most part, with the exceptions being some handheld night scenes. The audio delivery is clear.

There is a thin set of extras on the disc. It is composed of a photo gallery of the Campbell and Freeth farm, a written Q&A with the directors about the making of the film, and biographies of the directors.

Mugabe And The White African, despite serious bias in the presentation of its protagonists, is always compelling viewing and among the strongest documentaries in recent years. Yet, one can't help but wonder how much better it could have been in the hands of a skilled filmmaker with an ability to take a more detached approach to the subject matter, for example, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man).

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile
Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Shona)

* None

Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb

* Official Site

* Wikipedia: Mike Campbell (Pvt) Ltd and Others v. Republic of Zimbabwe