Despite numerous political and social upheavals, few African nations can claim to have been through as much in the last 30 years as Zimbabwe.
Since 1980 the landlocked African republic has experienced colonial domination, rapid economic growth, mass social upheaval, political violence and brutal repression, all under the ever-present watchful eye of President Robert Mugabe.
After leading his country to independence Mugabe was lauded by the West – gifted honorary degrees, granted prestigious international diplomatic posts, and knighted by the Queen, only to become an international pariah, shunned by the world and condemned as a brutal despot, willing to inflict maximum cruelty on his own people to further his own power.
It is this meteoric rise and subsequent fall from grace which marks the focus of exiled filmmaker Simon Bright’s documentary Robert Mugabe... What Happened? which was screened in Cardiff last Sunday night, along with a Q+A session at Chapter Arts Centre.
The film is an unflinching and often brutal portrayal of Mugabe’s rise to power, which pulls no punches in showing the violence of his regime.
From poverty-stricken beginnings to cementing his position as unquestioned leader of Zimbabwe, it documents how this charming, Cliff Richard-loving hero of the anti-colonial movement became one of the most despised men in Africa.
The film features never-before-seen archive footage and interviews with key opponents of the regime, including exiled journalists Trevor Ncube and Geoff Nyarota, human rights activist Lovemore Madhuku, and former Mugabe government minister Edgar Tekere, in his last interview before his death in June last year.
The film was first shown at the Encounters South Africa International Documentary Festival in Cape Town, where demand was so great extra screenings had to be put on. It has since sold out the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and became the first ever African documentary to get a wide cinema release in the UK.
The subject matter is one close to Bright’s heart. The son of ardent opponents of Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime he was exiled during the Rhodesian War, and returned when Mugabe took power to work for the department of agriculture. Here he was able to travel deep into his nation’s heartland, and amassed a large archive of footage of rural life in newly-independent Zimbabwe.
The promising start shown by Zimbabwe didn’t last, as Mugabe’s grip on the nation tightened. Following his imprisonment in 2003, when he was accused of supplying images for the BBC, Bright finally fled his home for Bristol, where he has lived ever since.
Bright was eventually released from custody after convincing the authorities of his innocence, and left the country soon after. Joking about his incarceration he said: “It’s much easier in interrogation to deny something you hadn’t done!” He returned to make the film in 2007, but has not been home since.
The vibrancy of Zimbabwean culture shines throughout the film – traditional music and singing are featured at various key points, from revolutionary anti-apartheid songs of the 1980s to the current underground anti-Mugabe protest scene. This authentic musical underpinning is clearly very important to Bright.
He said: “My father grew up collecting traditional instruments, and I wanted the musical element to help shape his experience of the different decades.”
Bright has nothing but contempt for the man he believes has squandered Zimbabwe’s potential as an independent nation.
He said: “He wages a civil war against his own people, and if we have to have a civil war when he leaves then it might be the only way to stop future conflict.”
Robert Mugabe... What Happened? is a powerful and important film, which documents an extraordinary story. Sadly it still remains to be seen how much of a difference this film can hope to make against a man willing to describe himself as “Africa’s Hitler”.