Sunday, 3 January 2010

 Mugabe and the White African (2009) 
  Reviewed by Joe Utichi  

With mainstream news media focused on far more popular current events, it’s the responsibly of documentary makers to remind us of those stories of world tragedy which might not rate the News at Ten. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe provoked international outrage ten years ago when he instituted a land reform act which, he said, would take the country’s farms away from their white owners and distribute it amongst the poor black population of the country.

75-year-old white farmer Michael Campbell has been fighting to keep his land ever since, forced to defend his rights to his property both in court and against attacks from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF militia. Campbell, a South African who moved to what was then Rhodesia in 1974, is the White African of the title, determined to prove that Mount Carmel farm – acquired after Independence and on the open market in 1980 – is rightfully his, and the film documents his 2008 legal battle with Mugabe.

Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson share Campbell’s story at enormous risk – there remains a press ban in Zimbabwe and all footage was filmed covertly – and weave a compelling drama which plays out in contrasts of courtrooms and farmland as Campbell and his family battle at turns Mugabe’s legal team and his militia. As the film unspools, so the true face of the land reform is revealed; the farms seized from white farmers - whose lives have been lived in Africa for generations - going not to the poor but to high-ranking ZANU-PF officials and their wives and girlfriends.

That the land issues in the country stretch more than 100 years to its colonial population is not disputed, but what emerges in the here and now is a picture of ethnic cleansing at the hands of an incredibly dangerous man. Mugabe’s rule and the power he brings promise to disrupt the legal process at every turn and Campbell is one of the few farmers with the nerve to fight the fight at all.

The battle continues to be waged – Mount Carmel farm was destroyed in an arson attack in September – but Mugabe and the White African is a film determined to bring the story to international attention. It currently sits on Oscar’s Best Documentary longlist of 15 films – the final nominees will be announced on 2nd February – and its potency and impact deserve to take it all the way. A better documentary you’re unlikely to see this year. Four stars.

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Friday, 1 January 2010

 Exam (2009) 
  Reviewed by Joe Utichi  

The British film industry does plenty of things often. Some would say too often. If it’s an East End gangster film, a twee rom-com or a corseted period piece, it’ll find a producer. Sci-Fi is a concept the British seemed to have totally forgotten until last year saw the release of two films which promised to breathe much-needed life and variety into our industry. The first was Moon, and if you haven’t already seen Duncan Jones’s tale of cloned scientists on a lunar base you’ll find it one of the finest of the year.

The second was Exam, which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival back in June and finally releases into a limited number of screens on 8th January ahead of a DVD release. Like Moon, it’s the product of a debut director, here screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine, and paints a grand canvas on a modest budget. And like Moon, it packs a tremendous punch in spite of its small scale.

The premise is simple; a group of ethnically diverse candidates (including Luke Mably and Jimi Mistry) enter a room to compete for an important, but mysterious job at a high-profile company. They have one question to answer, but only blank sheets in front of them and a strict set of rules which will eject them if they spoil their papers. Over the course of 80 minutes – in near real time – they come to learn more about each other at tremendous cost.

Set entirely in one room, its able cast and taut script keep up the tension while Hazeldine’s pace ensures we never feel starved by the limited environment. One-room films can so often feel like plays on the big-screen, but Exam leaks information about the world outside the doors so expertly that we feel we’re in a universe as fully-formed as you might find in Star Wars or Blade Runner.

It won’t be universally appealing, but it’ll grab fans of true science fiction and refuse to let go. And it’s exactly the sort of film we should be making more of in this country. That it relied on Hazeldine’s determination – and wallet – to get it off the ground and onto cinema screens is a great shame. A screen showing Exam might be a bit of a journey away, but rest assured: it’s a journey well worth taking. Four stars.

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