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Rough Cut: Namibia: This Land Is Ours
Behind the Lens: Interview With Sarah Colt

Here the filmmaker talks about her role as storyteller in this intricate story about race and what has happened to the families and farm workers since she returned from Africa.

What made you choose Namibia to tell this story? Zimbabwe is a more potent case of land redistribution in Africa.
Originally, I did want to do this story in Zimbabwe, where I'd lived for a year after college. But it's virtually impossible and very dangerous to work there as a journalist, especially with a video camera. So I chose Namibia because it's grappling with all the same issues as Zimbabwe -- impatience over land redistribution, anxiety on the part of the white farming communities, mixed messages from the government about land reform. Two days after I arrived in Windhoek in February 2004, the government made the announcement that it would begin expropriating land. My timing ended up being quite good.

How did you find the characters in your film? Land resettlement is such a sensitive issue among Namibians. Were people reluctant to talk?
In the months leading up to my trip to Namibia, the general secretary of the Farmworkers' Union, Alfred Angula, was getting a lot of attention for his statements about taking land from white farmers for farm workers. I talked to him from the United States and then met with him as soon as I arrived in the country.

The first day I was at the union offices in Katatura, a township of Windhoek, I met Asser Hendricks, who is involved with the union and was working with Angula in his dispute with Farm Krumhuk. Asser was very willing to share his story with me. I then called Farm Krumhuk because I obviously wanted to hear their side. Ulf Voigts called me back. He was apprehensive at first but eventually let me interview him and spend time on the farm.

Asser Hendricks.

With no land, Asser Hendricks grazes his cattle along the railroad corridor.

The film is very nuanced, and there's no "good against evil" struggle here -- just people trying to do their best in a pretty unforgiving landscape. How hard was it for you to tell the story from both sides and get it right?
It was hard. Asser and Ulf had been friends before everything that happened. Asser had come to Farm Krumhuk as a teenager, and Ulf had helped Asser get an education and then trained him so that he eventually became the farm's manager. They had worked side by side for years. The first time I interviewed Ulf, he described Asser as his "right hand." So their split was really painful.

It was a strange experience for me to spend time with one and then the other. I often felt like I was somehow cheating or something -- they would ask me about each other -- and I felt somehow in the middle. There was so much going on within the community of Farm Krumhuk -- issues of race, class, gender, culture -- and the more time I spent there, the more complicated and nuanced it all became. That's what drives me as a filmmaker, trying to understand human relations -- and that things are never how they appear on the surface.

The film gives us a sense of how black and white Namibians are living under increasing fear and frustration -- fear of losing what they have and frustration at waiting for what they see as rightfully theirs. Can you see the situation in the country escalating into violence and even greater racial division?
This is a difficult question. On the one hand, I don't think the violence that has happened in Zimbabwe, for example, could happen in Namibia. Namibia is very different. First of all, there are very few people living in a large country. Also, the government seems more reasonable and committed to the rule of law. On the other hand, there were some people I met on both sides of the issue who I could imagine allowing their anger and passion to translate into violence. But, in general, I feel hopeful that Namibia will figure this out peacefully.

"I don't think the violence that has happened in Zimbabwe could happen in Namibia. There are very few people living in a large country and the government seems more committed to the rule of law."

How much has the country changed since independence?
Well, blacks now have freedom and that's extremely profound, even if you are still poor. A small portion of the population is doing extremely well financially, but for a lot of people, I don't think their day-to-day lives have changed all that much. For whites, it's interesting -- they no longer have any real political power, but many still retain economic power. I think many of them sort of exist in their own world, almost as if nothing has changed. For example -- although Farm Krumhuk is located about 20 minutes from Windhoek, the capital -- most farms are extremely isolated, hours and hours away from even a small town. So, many white farmers just go about their lives running their farms and going on the occasional seaside vacation -- really living as they did before independence. It's as if they are keeping their heads down and hoping nobody notices them.

All the characters in your film handle themselves with surprising calm and dignity even though their lives are in turmoil. Why do you think that is?
As in so many conflicts, even when there is turmoil, you have to go about your life. On Krumhuk, Ulf and his family believe in what they are doing with the farm and the community they are trying to develop. They are Namibians, and they want the country to succeed. I think Asser is angry about the past and how he and his family were treated under apartheid, but he also has to go on with his life.

Andreas Wiese.

Andreas Wiese, owner of Ongombo West, awaits government action to expropriate his farm.

You've been in touch with the Wieses -- the family at the Ongombo West farm -- who were told their farm was on the list to be purchased by the government. Can you explain what has happened to them since you filmed?
First of all, it doesn't seem like the workers will get the farm. Or at least that is what the Wieses believe. I spoke to both Mrs. Wiese, the actual owner of Ongombo West, and Andreas, her son, just the other day on the phone. Since I filmed on the farm in early September 2004, they have been waiting to hear from the government about what they will get for the farm and when they will move. Just recently, they received word that the government would buy the farm for about a third of what they were asking. They're still waiting, though, and refuse to begin packing until they get their money. They are angry and bitter about how this has all come about. They think the government is incompetent. Although they're sad, they have come to terms with the fact that they will lose their farm -- they learned early in 2004 that they would be targeted -- but now the actual process of getting their money and moving is extremely upsetting to them. When I asked Mrs. Wiese if the farm workers would get the farm, she said that they had been told that the farm workers would have to move as well.

Have there been any major developments at Farm Krumhuk or with Asser Hendricks since you finished filming? Or any changes in the speed of land resettlement in general?
Asser's cattle are still on the railroad corridor. He has several young guys sleeping at the camp he's set up by the railroad tracks so they can watch the cattle. When I talked to him recently, he said he was still working with Angula to figure out the best strategy for getting him land. The rumor is that the government is about to issue another 18 notices of expropriation, but I have not been able to confirm this. In the latest email from Krumhuk, everything seems to be going along as usual.

Are other countries in Africa looking to Namibia as a good example of redressing the colonial past over land ownership?
No one really has the magic formula to deal with this issue -- it's too complicated and complex. People try to talk about it as an economic issue, but it is so much more emotional than that. So I think Namibia is considered a good example -- in theory. But then practice is something else. Expropriation is part of their constitution, and everyone sort of expected it at some point.

Ulf Voigts.

Ulf Voigts raises 800 head of cattle on 20,000 acres at Farm Krumhuk.

We don't see in the film the outcome of either black farm workers taking over a farm or white families leaving. Are there any cases where expropriation has already happened?
When the Wieses move off Ongombo West, they will be the first family to be expropriated. There are resettlement farms, that is, the government bought land through the willing-seller, willing-buyer program and resettled landless people, including former farm workers. I visited a couple of resettlement farms, and the people I talked to were happy to have their own land but were really struggling to make ends meet. Many were disgruntled with the government for not helping them more with financial assistance once they were given land.

This is essentially a story about race. How did you prepare for covering what is at the heart of so many conflicts and prejudices?
I think my living in Zimbabwe from 1992 to 1993 helped me prepare for this story. I was doing a still-photography project then, so had some sense of what it would be like to work in southern Africa. I think it was easier to be white and do this story. I wonder how some of the white farmers I talked to would have responded if I were African American. One guy I met with -- but who does not appear in the film -- asked me over the phone if I would be using a black driver to get to his farm for our meeting. He assumed I was white and explained he would not feel comfortable talking if a black person were in the room.

Apart from vocal labor disputes such as the one that put Ongombo West on the expropriation list, how are farms chosen for compulsory resettlement? From the documentary, the process seems very arbitrary, leaving everyone in limbo.
This is the big question. The government has not been clear on exactly how it will choose farms to be expropriated, and, of course, this makes the white farming community really uneasy. The Namibian Agricultural Union, which represents the commercial farmers, has been asking for guidelines, but as far as I know the government still has not given them a clear set of criteria for expropriation.