In August this year, I came across Roy Agyemang’s article in the Guardian, on the just concluded elections in Zimbabwe. I found his perspective quite different from the usual Mugabe-is-the-devil refrain in the media. Eventually I found myself on the website for a documentary he directed, titled: “Mugabe: Villain or Hero?” The subject matter aroused my interest especially when I realised that film screenings were still going on around the UK.
I got in touch with the film maker to arrange for a screening in Oxford. Apparently, other student-led associations were interested in the documentary. So, on Thursday 31st October, the film was screened by the Oxford Afro-Caribbean Society. The documentary was as informative, interesting and provocative as I imagined it would be.
The film seems to be a serendipity of sorts because the original goal was, in Agyemang’s words: to “get into Zimbabwe, spend three months, interview Mugabe and leave”. However three months quickly became three years as getting access to the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was not a walk in the park. It ended up chronicling the three-year journey of the film maker and his crew in the country towards securing the interview. Of course spending that amount of time in the country meant they witnessed the politicking, electioneering campaign, and violence of the 2008 elections, the hyper inflation and economic crisis, the effects of the international sanctions, in addition to finally having first-hand access to Mugabe.
What I found particularly fascinating is how the film’s main goal seemed to evolve the longer Agyemang and his film crew stayed in Zimbabwe. For the film maker, he became more determined to paint a different picture of the country and the personality of Mugabe, rather than what he considers an inaccurate portrayal by the international media.
Even during the Q&A session after the film, Agyemang reiterated that his main objective was to show a different side to Mugabe and his stewardship over Zimbabwe. He emphasised his motivation with such infectious determination bordering on passion. His British-Ghanaian identity arguably, lends his voice on this issue significant credibility. In fact, his “British accent” initially impeded access to Mugabe because the Octogenarian leader’s aides suspected him to be a spy. He had to undergo a makeover over of sorts, to assume a more African “Roy from Ghana” identity.
Many, particularly those with little knowledge of Zimbabwe will find the film informative. For instance, after independence in 1980, Mugabe appointed some of his former white adversaries to his cabinet, and the country became a model of an interracial society. For that, he was called “The Gandhi of Africa”, was compared to mother Theresa, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and was awarded an honorary Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.
Mugabe however became a villain, the “Black Hitler”, with the controversial land reforms in 2000 in which white-owned farms were transferred to black Zimbabweans. True to the film’s objective of going against the grain in the narrative on Zimbabwe, the film shows how the Blair government’s decision to renege on the Lancaster House agreement between Zimbabwe and Britain meant to oversee this land reform, catalysed Mugabe’s forceful seizure of land from white farmers, and other nationalisation policies. The film focuses on the international politics behind the sanctions.
The viewer also glimpses into Mugabe’s personality. Far from a stiff, horned and unapproachable autocrat, the film shows him as a lucid and witty person in touch with his people. In one scene, Mugabe is seen being coached by very young Zimbabweans on an engaging electoral campaign strategy.
Certainly, Mugabe is a leader who has mastered the art of tapping into a strong anti-neocolonialist sentiment among his people. It is obvious that among his supporters in the country is a fervent, almost messianic belief in Mugabe’s ability to secure “Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans” against foreign domination. One thing I noticed here is that this anti-neocolonialist sentiment, along with the crippling effect of the sanctions, and Mugabe’s demonisation in the international media may have inadvertently forged a strong sense of national identity among Zimbabweans. Rightly or wrongly, such national consciousness has conspicuously eluded many other African countries.
Notwithstanding, the viewer is taken on a brief tour of the darker side of Mugabe’s stewardship. One such case is the Gukurahundi, the brutal suppression of civilians in the 1980s by the government’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Thousands were executed whilst Mugabe was simultaneously receiving numerous international accolades for how the crisis was managed. The country’s severe economic crisis in 2007 with hyper inflation at over 150,000% and the crippling effects of international sanctions on the country’s ordinary people are also liberally shown.
An observation was made during the Q&A session which I agree with. The perspective of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ought to have been included in the documentary for greater balance. Agyemang responded that they tried unsuccessfully, to reach out to Tsvangirai.
I personally would have liked to see more on the Chinese presence in the country. This is because development assistance from China has been the government’s lifeline since Mugabe’s fallout with Western countries. I also would’ve liked to see more on the fractionalisation and the succession crisis within Mugabe’s party, the ZANU-PF. In response to my observations, the film maker assured that these areas would be covered in a follow-up documentary.
Overall, the film delivers on its main objectives of providing an alternative view of Robert Mugabe and of widening the debate about him. Regardless of what position one takes on Mugabe, alternative narratives always provide a refreshing take on things. It’s a provocative and timely documentary which is generating a lot of interest. So far there has been screenings at Harvard University, New York University and the British Film Institute to mention a few locations. Screenings are still going on until the film is released on DVD and online early next year.