Although co-directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have an impressive track record in making films in some of the most difficult countries in the world, they didn’t make their lives any easier with their first feature length documentary. Filmed in what is considered one of the most dangerous countries, Zimbabwe, they have produced a highly personal and effecting documentary that gives us a glimpse into a country under media lockdown and a journey into the lives of Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, two white Zimbabwean’s taking on their government in the hope of keeping their family farm in the face of President Mugabe's controversial land-reform act.
Thompson and Bailey spoke to LWLies recently about the challenges of filming Mugabe and the White African in such a hostile environment.
LWLies: How did you come across this particular story?
Bailey: We’ve spent a lot of time filming in Africa over the last few years and we’ve been doing a lot for Comic Relief. We were interested in the situation in Zimbabwe and we knew that there was a story to be told but obviously that it was going to be impossible. We then heard about this court case, about this guy who was going to be taking on Mugabe and we looked at each other and thought, maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the way in and the way we can tell the story. We initially met the family in Namibia and shot a recce tape and saw that they were amazing characters that could carry this story and that they wanted to do this as well. Ben said to us early on that ‘publicity is the soul of justice’, and I think that they knew that they were putting their lives at risk. They felt that if they could get the story told then at least that was something, at least it would be out there. It’s a very intimate story of a human family, but through their story and the case you hopefully get the bigger picture and a sense of what is going on inside Zimbabwe.
You can’t help but be daunted by the idea of the logistics behind filming this, how did you even approach it in the beginning?
Bailey: It was kind of 'God okay we’ve reached a point where we’re going to have to film inside Zimbabwe’, but this is a country we can’t film in and then there’s the court case itself so you think ‘are we actually going to get access to film inside an international court?’ because that never gets done either. So we really set ourselves a difficult task.
Thompson: In the film we’ve largely turned a blind eye to how difficult and how dangerous it was to be inside Zimbabwe. I’m a DoP in normal life and it was always very important to us and me in particular that the film had a cinematic quality about it. We always hoped that this would be a film, that it would be able to play on TV, but that the film could also be shown theatrically. It was always very important to me that it looked the best it could possibly look. Yes it's difficult to film inside Zimbabwe, but I didn’t want to go in with a small camera and film 50 hours of home video.
How did you approach planning to shoot in such a difficult situation?
Bailey: We were very Africa savvy but we were lucky that we had a good network of fixers across southern Africa who did a lot of work in the countries around Zimbabwe to get us and the equipment in and out, and we both have had hostile environment training. Andy’s done a lot of work in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza so we had that experience to bring to the table.
Thompson: Getting in we just had to be smart, and although we had to break the rules a couple of times, we would always travel separately from the camera equipment, we would always use border crossings and we would use different drivers, and different vehicles. We would create fake itineraries and there were a few ‘safari’ companies that I’d be travelling with. As much as possible we would always have a cover story, we would travel under different guises. Once we got to the farm we would only shoot in short sharp bursts and we would always sleep in different safe houses at night and try and keep one step ahead of the authorities. There was always someone behind us, always a knock on the door on either Ben or Mike’s farmhouse after we had left saying ‘there’s a film crew here isn’t there?’ So we managed to make sure it never got out that we were there. I’ve been to lots of places now, I just got back from Israel and Gaza a few weeks ago but I have never been anywhere like it. Ben describes it as ‘ a cloud of fear that hangs over Zimbabwe’, and he’s right. It’s a very intimidating, scary place and there’s a deep mistrust amongst people, no one's quite sure who’s an informer, who’s a friend, and who’s a foe. You had to have good fixers, good cover stories and hold your nerve to get through it all.
The family took great risks filming as well. How did you get theirs, and your own, footage out?
Thompson: We welded film stock and camera gear into jerry cans, we hid them in boats, we hid them in buoys of boats, and we hid them in the back of car seats, in door panels, in roof panels. Everything was smuggled in and everything was smuggled out.
Bailey: We also left a small A1 camera behind with the family and that was invaluable because obviously we couldn’t be there all the time and with a tiny camera they could get stuff. They couldn’t go in with a big camera, but we could and I think that helped give it a filmic look. We always set out to make a film, we didn’t want to make something that looked like an undercover news story so our ambitions were always high. So we were going to take big lenses in and we were going to make life difficult for ourselves. But having that small camera with the family was invaluable because it got those extra moments, moments we just couldn’t have gotten with a bigger camera. So when they are talking in front of the house, Ben filmed that, and when they’re being chased, Ben filmed that, and Mike picked up the camera when the MDC came to the farm for help when they’d been shot at.
There are some really interesting strands that run through the film, one of them being racism towards white people, which is very difficult. How did you decide to handle that?
Bailey: We were aware that it’s something that doesn’t really get talked about, this whole notion of being white and African. There’s a question posed in the film, ‘can you be white and American, can you be white and Australian?’ and of course the answer is yes, but can you be white and African? Well lots of people think no and that’s wrong, we believe that’s wrong and we were aware that it could be deemed as slightly controversial but not really if you care about human rights. If you care about human rights for everyone no matter what colour your skin. So yes we were aware but it’s so right that I think if anyone wants to criticise then they can do, but it’s right, it’s obvious, isn’t it obvious? The farmers in Zimbabwe are white and African and they’re not colonialists. It's weird, people blame people for what happened 300 years ago. I think people need to put this black/white thing to bed. The sooner the better, then Africa can start to move on.
How do the family feel about the film?
Bailey: Well in many ways I think the family feel that the film is all they’ve got. It’s their record of the past and their hope for the future because everything they’re fighting for was wrapped up in the farm and so I think it’s very important to them.