Mugabe farm hell on film

25 July 2010 - 02:00 By SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER

When Zimbabwean farmer Ben Freeth saw a torturous period in his life unfold before him on celluloid, he sobbed.

He and his family are the reluctant heroes of an award-winning film, Mugabe and the White African, which makes its African debut at the Durban International Film Festival today.

Now Freeth, an advocate for the rights of persecuted Zimbabwean farmers and farm workers, is headed for Buckingham Palace to receive a Member of the British Empire honour from the queen.

The documentary film, the first to come out of Zimbabwe in recent years and now shortlisted for an Oscar, was shot covertly, largely on the Chegutu farm of Mike Campbell, Freeth's father-in-law.

Campbell and Freeth made headlines in 2007 when they challenged Robert Mugabe's violent "land reform" programme at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) international tribunal court in Namibia. A year later the court made a landmark ruling, declaring the government's land reform programme unlawful.

It made no difference. The film captures the courtroom drama and the subsequent victimisation and torture of the family and their workers.

After the torching of their property last year, they abandoned the once-thriving crop farm and moved to Harare.

Freeth, who arrives in Durban today to attend the screening, said he broke down when he saw the film for the first time in South Africa last year.

"When I came to South Africa, I came with only the clothes I had on, nothing else in the world. When I watched the film I was in tears ..." he said.

"I think what this film does is bring awareness among people in the way a news report does not do, because it brings the story into people's hearts," Freeth said.

Freeth said the landmark judgment had brought on a flood of emotion at the time.

"It did not matter whether we were hard, strong, tough men ... everyone was just in tears. We had been through so much.

"We were very, very badly beaten prior to the main hearing in June 2008. Between my father-in-law, brother-in-law and me we had so many broken bones.

"After the judgment they made sure we paid for having gone to court," he said. Their crops were plundered and their homes torched.

The SADC tribunal has ruled repeatedly that the government is in contempt of its order.

"We are just hoping that something happens at the SADC summit in Windhoek next month," he said.

For now, the film will not be screened in Zimbabwe.