Geoffrey Smith: In your own words, what is Mugabe and the White African about?
Lucy Bailey: Mugabe and the White African is the story of an extraordinary man, Mike Campbell, a white Zimbabwean farmer who took president — dictator, in effect — Mugabe to court for human rights abuses. The case was concerned with the land reform system in Zimbabwe. Essentially, the government was taking land from white farmers to distribute it to the poor black majority. But, as you see in the film, that’s not what was happening. Mike takes his case to an international court, saying that the land reform policy is racist and it violates human rights. The film is this incredible journey over a tumultuous year in Zimbabwe.
Smith: What’s the larger thematic story? What’s the story that each of us is ultimately going to identify with?
Bailey: It can be seen as a battle of good against evil. But in many ways, it’s more about the power of one. A viewer ends up asking himself, “What would I do in those circumstances?” I think that’s the film’s strength. It makes you, as an individual, ask, “How far would I go really to stand up for what I believe in?”
Smith: Under what conditions did you shoot it? Is it true that most of the time your camera, if not your actual intentions, had to be hidden?
Bailey: Initially, we were filming this court case. We’d been interested in what was happening inside Zimbabwe and we were wondering how on earth we could tell that story. There was a total press ban at the time, meaning it was illegal to take cameras into the country. So through the court case we had this way of telling the story, because the court itself was in Namibia, in Windhoek. But, there came a point where we realized we were going to have to go into Zimbabwe. We were going to have to smuggle ourselves and our equipment onto the farm. That in itself was a huge undertaking. It was done at great personal risk to us. We had to break the kit down into component parts. We had to go over a different border every time. We sent the equipment down the Zambezi River at night on a boat. It then had to be driven across the country to the farm, which meant we sometimes had lenses welded into car doors. We hid it sometimes under a boat. We relied on brave fixers, who helped us get the equipment in and out of the country as well. We were lucky that we had this incredible network of people in the countries surrounding Zimbabwe who helped us. If we had been found out, as British filmmakers in Zimbabwe, at that time, it would have been incredibly dangerous. There’s one particular scene that I actually filmed in a hospital in Harare. To get that scene, the equipment was broken down into component parts. The camera was pulled apart. It was wrapped, gift wrapped, hidden under cakes. Even the boom pole was disguised as a crutch. Nothing we did for that film was easy. When you look back at the film, it’s easy to forget that. And as for the viewers, they won’t know what we actually had to go through in order to get those shots.
Smith: Did it affect the film that we see? Does it come through in a tangible way that I might somehow pick up on as a viewer?
Bailey: We made life difficult for ourselves, because we did take in large format cameras. We didn’t go in taking tiny hidden lipstick cameras. Our aim early on was to make a cinematic film, one that would stand up on the big screen. There were times when it was frustrating, because we couldn’t get the camera out. But I think the end result works, in that it adds to this sense of desperation and a sense of fear, a sense of how the country is closed. It helps with the atmosphere of the film, and the atmosphere of the film was vital to us. We had to get a sense of place. It was important that we were in Zimbabwe, getting a sense of the farm, the place that Mike and Ben were fighting for. In addition to our smuggling, we did leave a small camera behind with the family, because we couldn’t be on the grounds all the time for security and safety reasons. They were able to capture some things that we couldn’t have captured, because we would have been thrown into prison or worse.
Smith: How did you learn about the story, and once you had, why did you choose to make a film about it?
Bailey: We’d been very interested in what was going on inside Zimbabwe. There had been some press coverage about farmers being beaten up and kicked off their land, and there were stifling elections. We knew that this president had been in power a long time and that people were suffering. It was almost like a regime closed to the outside world. We wanted to dig inside. We read a tiny snippet about a farmer — he was going to be taking on this court case. We looked at one another and thought, “Wow! One man is prepared to take on a president like Mugabe.” It was a bit of a light bulb moment. Someone who’s prepared to do that is going to be an interesting character. When we met Ben and Mike in Mubayira when they were there for the case sit-down, we mutually decided to make a film about it. They knew they were risking a lot by taking on this court case. But, I think they knew that through having a film made, whatever happened would be in the public record. To make a good film, you need protagonists who want to make the film with you. That’s why it worked. We all had the aim of telling the stories and showing what was really happening.
Smith: Do you think that your presence, not just your physical presence, but your psychological support, helped them through some of it as well?
Bailey: I think it did. We remain great friends of the family. You don’t go through an experience like that and not stay friends. Their story was going to get out there. Our promise to them was “If you let us make the film, if you can give us the access, if you’re prepared to let us into your lives, we will tell the world your story. We will tell the world what’s really happening inside Zimbabwe.”
Smith: Tell us about aesthetic and style choices. You said before you wanted it to be cinematic. What does that mean and then how did you go about achieving that?
Bailey: For us as filmmakers, a sense of place is very important. Atmosphere is key. We tried to recreate the atmosphere inside Zimbabwe, something that’s very different than the atmosphere in the court in Namibia with the lawyers. It affected everything, from the way we shot it to the way we edited it to the way the music layers, even to the grading that we did for each country. All these things had to come together, because that sense of place was critical.
Smith: What’s the process you use? Do you rely on emotional hunches?
Bailey: With this film, it was mostly emotional hunches. We didn’t plan too much. The day before we’d film something, or the night before, we’d go through every detail, through different scenarios, and think about how we wanted to film it. If they were going into court the next day, we would think about how we were going to film it and what we were trying to do. It was always a day or hours in advance. We never had a grand master plan. It was very much based on instinct, as we were coming to an evolving story. There is a lot of history — history of Zimbabwe, history of the land reform program and history of these particular individuals. We were bringing the audience up to speed very quickly and taking them through a year in this family’s life. That was hard, because we were juggling the need to give the audience a certain amount of background information with the desire to avoid making a historical documentary about the history of Zimbabwe. We set out to tell the story of the court case from the start to the end. That’s what our film was and remains. We had to be quite clear about our story. We did approach the Zimbabwean government on several occasions to ask them if they would like to take part. They refused. What they gave us is what you see in the court case.
Smith: What would you like a PBS audience to get out of the film?
Bailey: I hope that they can take away something personal about humanity and about the world — something about human rights and about respecting other people. The film covers big issues of human rights and what’s right and wrong, but I want people to be gripped by an amazing story that is like a Hollywood movie. Except it isn’t, because it’s real. I think real stories are far more interesting than any Hollywood movie.
Smith: What do you think is the most important ethical consideration for documentary filmmakers working today?
Bailey: I’ve never had any particular ethical concerns other than making sure that my participants are aware of the film and the impact it may or may not have. People have said to me, “Did you not put their lives at risk by making the film?” My answer to that is no. Ben and Mike already had their heads above the parapet for taking on the court case. We were just witnesses to that. We discussed it with them, but I don’t think we were raising the danger levels for them by making the film. But as a filmmaker, you have to be aware of these things.
Smith: What surprised you about the theme or the individuals involved?
Bailey: We knew about their tenacity and their courage from the outset because of who they were taking on. But to continue with that throughout, considering what was thrown at them, was extraordinary. You don’t find people like that every day. There were times when, amidst our frustration, when the court case kept getting delayed and we didn’t have any money to make the film, we were thinking, “How do we ever do this? How are we ever going to finish?” But because they were so resolute, we couldn’t give up. There were times when we were in tears, not knowing how to carry on. But we weren’t going to give up, because of them. Their tenacity and their courage began to sort of rub off. We’d come so far on this journey with them that we were going to see it through, one way or another.