Robert Mugabe...What Happened?

Two films that address human rights both hail from Africa -- the first from Mugabe's strife-torn Zimbabwe and the other from Uganda, which is a venue rarely productive of film.

The more historical of the two, ROBERT MUGABE ...WHAT HAPPENED?, a longitudinal study by articulate, charming director/filmmaker Simon Bright, who has spent many years in the country, of the longtime dynast/president of financially hectic Zimbabwe, is a daring recap of the life and times of President Robert Mugabe.  Bright goes back to Mugabe's earliest revolutionary beginnings, with original archival material that is fairly staggering, smuggled out in many cases, long-buried, catalogued and forgotten, hidden for fear of death -- given how dangerous negative footage of Mugabe has become over the years since the once-rich resources state transitioned from British Southern Rhodesia in 1980 to what it is now.  Today, Zimbabwe is a robber-baron fiefdom of Mugabe and his favorites.  The farms that were for years the fertile breadbasket of Africa have been ravaged and depleted by squalid mismanagement forced on them by government's ousting and massacre of most white farm owners and their loyal assigns.  Anyone who could flee has long fled.

My own experience there was one of constant concern that the food situation, even for visitors, not to mention locals, was dire.  Lassitude engendered by hopelessness was a daily accompaniment.  Food was scarce.  Commodities of all kinds are black-market or absent.  Successive waves of devaluation of the Zim dollar, alternating with inflation from overprinting of worthless paper money, have defeated efforts by the citizenry to climb out of devastating poverty.  One beer cost the purchaser in the realm of several billion Zim dollars.  Investment in the country's infrastructure is out of the question.

Printing billions of ultimately worthless dollars does nothing more than further bankrupt this formerly fertile land to the north of the Union of South Africa.  Endemic corruption and self-acclaim by an increasingly nonresponsive leader have plunged the nation into a downward spiral that is alleviated only, in the film, by the surprising elegance and suave gentility of this brutal hegemon to outsiders.  His manner, speech, and training to outsiders remain genteel, ever British and correct, while his rule over his people retains the feral obliviousness and life-defying coarseness of many such corrupt self-promoters throughout the continent.  A constant surprise is the remarkably brave finds and clips of important political and business leaders, who are beyond articulate and analytical as to the endless sins of the regime and its volatile leader.  As with so many territories in Africa, the populace cannot wait for the death of the president, hoping for the nebulous better country candidate, if and when that prayed-for wish materializes.  The film is riveting, painfully hard to take, and an important documentation of the past 35-some years in this now-forlorn and unforgivably dangerous land.

In English, Ndebele and Shona, with English subtitles. 120 minutes.

CALL ME KUCHU, a centerpiece of Lincoln Center's annual Human Rights film festival, is directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright.  "Kuchu" is Luganda for "homosexual," and the passage of Uganda into the world of laissez-faire sexual minorities' rights is chronicled in the story of human rights activist David Kato in Kampala and his confrères, male and female, around the country.  Interesting in that while many African-based films and documentaries are solipsistic in an African-centered idiom, CALL ME is striking for utilizing and adopting, whole hog, the North American symbolism, vocabulary, and aesthetic of U.S. sexual minorities.  Perhaps because there is no indigenous Luganda for "outing" and "transgendered."  There is an international choral chamber that jostles one's sense of what is typical for place, and what seems to be imported.

The difference here is that while people daring to admit their sexual proclivities here can be occasionally troubling and trying, in sub-Saharan Uganda, draconian laws propose the death penalty for being a sera-positive homosexual, and parents are threatened with three years' imprisonment if they fail to tell the authorities that their offspring are non-heterosexual.  Doctors must report such people.  Following the debate, this film interviews the decidedly biased media, leaders, and church elders, who come off as close-minded and un-PC without apology.  Public demonstrations, infractionless detentions, physical abuses, and ferocious battles occur with regularity, with those who affirm their humanity in other-than-hetero-normative fashion earning the brunt of media storms, denunciations, threats, and ultimately, heartbreaking violence.  Even funerals are not free of such violence.  Foreign ministers arrive to add fuel to the fire.  The eloquent, self-abnegating rights warrior David Kato is shockingly murdered in his own home, and he becomes martyred by his stunned followers.

One cannot help recalling the hijacked Western plane under former bizarre leader/cannibal Idi Amin, where Yoni Netanyahu freed over a hundred captives in Entebbe, losing his life in so doing.  Uganda since Amin has many problems, and the country is hard at work trying to lift itself into contemporary civility.  These unconscionable prehistoric abuses and brutal denial of human rights do nothing to advance this still emerging society from its dark times.  There are endless ways Uganda needs clear-thinking leaders and discipline.  Untreated in the documentary is the march of Islam in this still-backward country, which often advances its clamorous unmodern agenda and strictures.  It is not Christianity alone that is the crucial juggernaut here.

In English and Luganda, with English subtitles. 90 minutes

Opens: 28 June 2012 at Lincoln Center in New York, and will receive nationwide distribution