Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Governmental property seizure is a tough cinematic sell. If the rules of society have broken down to the point where thugs, corrupt political officials and/or armed militias are forcibly removing people from their homes there are usually even more viscerally terrifying crimes happening in the foreground that are likely to capture public attention. But when the peace treaties have been signed, the news cameras have left and the garbage is getting picked up each week there are still deep wounds that can leave generations of disenfranchised and embittered people whose ancestors have been stripped of their homes, livelihoods and cultural legacies.
Mugabe and the White African centers on Mike Campbell, an Australian-born naturalized citizen of Zimbabwe (and the filmmaker's father-in-law) who has been a farmer in his adopted country since the late 1960s. But for the better part of a decade, Campbell has been embroiled in a legal fight against dictator Robert Mugabe's land reform policies that seized redistributed property from white residents who purchased the land while the last dictator was in power and give it to poor black residents who were long-discriminated against by white politicians.
With an issue that has a long violent and complicated history, 'objectivity' can often render a film glib to the point of being irresponsible. White African makes no claims to a false sense of impartiality. We see Mugabe only in sound bites quoting his appreciation for Adolf Hitler while Mike is presented as a loving grandfather, understanding boss and God-fearing Christian. The film happily indulges Campbell's perspective that the conflict is a matter of anti-white racial discrimination pure and simple.
Mugabe is a war criminal by any standard and photographic evidence of the abductions and horrific beatings dispatched by his secret police is quickly disseminated through neighboring farmers. The film, and its subject, makes no attempt to recognize the inevitable cycle of violence that comes from a nation being handed back and forth between one racist criminal regime to the next. Viewers may also need to brace themselves for the extreme ick-factor of seeing Campbell's (poor, black) farmhands bear the brunt of the beatings dispensed by Mugabe's thugs while Mrs. Campbell blithely talks about putting her life in God's hands while happy, blond children frolic behind her. After many delays, which continue to endanger the safety of all parties, Campbell is eventually able to have his day in court. On the stage of an international African tribunal, their attorney passionately argues that this could set a legal precedent for ending racial discrimination across the entire continent. It's a deceptively simple, but encouraging grace note for the film to end on, and for the struggle to turn on.
DVD extras include a Q&A with the director, crew biographies, photo gallery and distributor's trailer gallery.
See also: War Don Don, After the War: Life post-Yugoslavia, Apocalypse Now Redux.
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