The quest to understand a dictator


A new documentary, billed as the definitive account of Robert Mugabe’s life, takes an in-depth look at one of Africa’s most infamous dictators.

Directed by Simon Bright, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? tracks Mugabe’s life from successful liberation leader to dictator.
Says producer Michael Auret of Spier Films: “The documentary begins as a journey to discover how the hero of the liberation and subsequent development of Zimbabwe could have led the country in such a murderous manner to wrack and ruin.’
Auret explains that Bright approached him to produce the film. “Simon’s home country is Zimbabwe. He wanted to go on a personal journey back there and ask: what happened? His family was opposed to Ian Smith’s regime in the then Rhodesia and emigrated but returned in 1982 to work in the Agricultural Ministry as they were impressed with the liberator Mugabe. Later Simon witnessed the decline and fall of his hero, which ultimately pushed him out of the country again. This documentary is a search for understanding.’


Zimbabwe-born Auret says that the question of what happened to the country is one that people want answers to. “My father had written a book called From Liberator to Dictator; a Personal Account of Mugabe’s Descent into Tyranny – and while editing the book with him, I began to understand how much my parents and other Zimbabweans believed Mugabe and entrusted their futures to him, only to be betrayed. This left them with unanswered questions as to who Mugabe really was and what motivated him and the eventual deception of his people.’
Auret’s family also opposed the Smith regime and left Rhodesia. “In 1981 Mugabe encouraged people to return after they fled as refugees from Rhodesia in 1979. How Mugabe the man changed is what people want to understand. Heidi Holland’s book Dinner with Mugabe suggests that Mugabe actually yearned to be an English gentleman accepted by the Queen and the west, yet was confused by the impact of this desire on his African-ness and his supposed revolutionary ideology. This theory suggests that Mugabe is somewhat schizophrenic and his vindictive reaction to white farmers, for instance, were the actions of a jilted lover. There are many theories about Mugabe and this is just one of them.’

Thesis vs antithesis

After much debate about the film’s structure, the director, producers and team of writers decided to present a thesis and an antithesis in order to come up with a synthesis. “The thesis is that Mugabe is a good man gone bad, while the antithesis is that Mugabe is a bad man who did not show his true colours until it became necessary,’ explains Auret.
He notes that like his parents and many others, Bright believed that Mugabe was a real hero in the 1980s and a good man gone bad. Auret continues: “However, there is evidence to show that at worst, Mugabe has always been ruthless and a Machiavellian social misfit who hungers for power. At the very least “the good’ Mugabe may have been badly affected by his fight against the Smith regime in the amoral sense and that the moral compromises of the bush war years were carried through to the 1980s. This is what led us to the Nietzsche quote: “He who fights with monsters must take care lest he too become a monster’.’
The documentary aims to set the record straight and encompasses the history of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. Auret stresses that the film tries to avoid the white supremacist version of history. “It is an attempt to show Zimbabweans their history in an objective manner so that they can understand how it is that they still live in a fascist state equal to the fascist regime of Ian Smith, or even worse.’


Bright approached Auret with funds generated by a licence deal with ZDF / ARTE and Fonds Sud.
“As Mugabe the White African did phenomenal business Spier Films decided to invest in Simon’s film and retain the right to sell it. We applied to the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa for a grant, raised some equity from other investors and applied for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) rebate.
“Raising funds for the original budget was relatively easy but the film took much longer to edit and finish than expected, so we ran over budget. We are now looking for finance to fund the 52-minute cut-down version for broadcast and the archival clearance for world rights. I must say that Ronelle Loots did a fantastic job with the edit,’ comments Auret.


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