On 'P.O.V.,' white farmers take on Mugabe

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REVIEW

THE DOCUMENTARY "Mugabe and the White African"

WHEN|WHERE Tonight at 10 on WNET/13

REASON TO WATCH "P.O.V.'s" award-winning film on a pair of white farmers in a legal battle with Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the late 1990s, Mugabe began to evict white farmers from their land, to turn a vast swath of the country -- the former Rhodesia -- over to black Zimbabweans. This is the story of two white farmers -- Ben Freeth and his father-in-law Mike Campbell -- who refused to go. (Some of this is filmed via hidden camera to avoid reprisals, according to the film's producers.)

"White African" begins on the eve of an international tribunal empaneled in Namibia where the legality of Mugabe's land-grab policies that displaced some 4,000 white farmers will ultimately be determined. While awaiting their day in court, Freeth, Campbell and their families, along with a few of the other 500 people who live and work on their farm, spend their days and (usually) nights repelling invaders -- roaming gangs intent on taking the land or stripping the farm of assets. Their lives are perilous but seemingly protected by the invisible hand of the Southern African Development Community tribunal as it slowly grinds out justice.

MY SAY The opening moments of this powerful and particularly well-made film are economical and eloquent -- scenes of a paradise lost, then ravaged under the boot heel of Mugabe (his infamous quote comparing himself to Hitler is superimposed on the screen). Blues and greens are ceded to rust colors, as once productive farmland turns to dust.

But Campbell and Freeth hold on, and on, against the odds and against the corrupt tinpot dictator. It's a sharply drawn, made-for-TV (or certainly "P.O.V.") narrative with heroes, and villainy. But what may be missing is a bit of perspective: Africa is a continent full of injustice, malefactors and genocide. Campbell and Freeth at least got their day in court; many millions of others never did and never will. In that light, their terrible story seems almost optimistic.

BOTTOM LINE Searing, and sharply told, but how many other white farmers remain in Zimbabwe, and what of their fate?

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GRADE B+

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