Farmer takes on despot in compelling documentary "Mugabe"

Fri Jul 23, 2010 7:15pm EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Its awkward title notwithstanding, "Mugabe and the White African" offers the sort of narrative drama rarely found in documentaries. The account of the efforts of a white farmer in Zimbabwe to defy the forced redistribution of his property by the regime of the country's despotic president, Robert Mugabe, has more urgency than most Hollywood thrillers. First Run Features released the film Friday.

Mugabe's so-called "land reform" -- devised to seize land from white owners and give it to poor blacks, but which actually served to benefit his friends and cronies -- is the subject of Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson's film, which centers on the plight of 75-year-old white farmer Michael Campbell.

When Campbell's farm, which employed about 500 black workers, was seized by the government, he took the unprecedented step of fighting back, accusing the regime of racial discrimination and human rights violations in an international court. The resulting epic legal battle posed great risks to the resolutely dignified Campbell and his family, who suffered numerous home invasions and who at one point were savagely beaten and tortured by unknown assailants.

The highly repressive government essentially bans all media coverage, which meant that much of the film had to be shot on the sly, adding yet another level of drama to the proceedings.

Although one might have hoped that more historical information and perspective about the country had been provided, it's not surprising that the filmmakers instead concentrate so heavily on their deeply sympathetic subjects, who include Campbell's courageous wife, daughter and son-in-law.

The outcome of the story will not be revealed here. But suffice it to say that it contains the inspirational elements that would make for a terrific dramatization and the irony that serves as a reminder of the brutal messiness of truth.