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Dispatch from Zimbabwe: Shooting Under the Watchful Eyes of Mugabe

Indiewire By Wendy Dent | Indiewire July 29, 2013 at 3:13PM

In this first-person article from filmmaker Wendy Dent, she explains the great lengths she went to in order to film in a place that is not friendly to cameras.
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In this first-person article from filmmaker Wendy Dent, she explains the great lengths she went to in order to film in a place that is not friendly to cameras.

As the Zimbabwe elections loom, I scour the US papers and see only articles about Egypt and Syria. Then I think of the people of Zimbabwe entering polling booths before the end of the month -without the UN's independent observers and with a coercive military surrounding them. God help them.

“No one cares about Zimbabwe” a friend said to me. But I think he was wrong. The problem is just that few people know about what is happening there, because (as I titled my documentary) in most US news coverage there’s "No News From Harare."

But there is a story to be told, which has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world, or deemed less important in the midst of upheaval in the Middle East. So I will not rest, until I speak about it, even if no-one else does. The people that I filmed, at risk of imprisonment, have been wrongly denied the right to speak for themselves.  And the memory one of them, and of one of the most chilling hours of my life, still haunts me to this day:

An average Zimbabwean man was sitting on a bench in the Harare Gardens - a beautiful park in the center of the city, directly opposite parliament.

It was a beautiful day, a sunny day. A perfect day for a protest. He was simply talking to two foreigners (another independent filmmaker and myself). Talking about his country, and translating the placards of the opposition party protesters who’d suddenly gathered on the street nearby.  But something was wrong.

“The police will be here in 12 minutes,” he said.

My colleague set the timer on his watch. “Then we’d be better be gone within ten."

Below is a scene from "No News from Harare" that addresses the government's relationship to media.


I started recording. It was a rare event to see an opposition party protest in Harare. And even rarer to find a local courageous enough not to be camera shy. “This was a beautiful country. But now that is gone. People don’t talk about it just because they are afraid. They are afraid of what will happen to them. If you talk, you just disappear. And then you are gone. Gone. And nobody will find you.”

I leaned in closer. People were noticing me with my camera. My zoom lens captured the protest some distance from where we watched innocently, simply sitting at the park bench. But to be captured with a camera, talking about the government, would spell the end of innocence.

“I know six myself who have disappeared. Not here but in Mutare. Six friends in Mutare, they are gone for 2 years now. And when that happens, you can be sure they are dead. You can be sure.”

Our interview abruptly ended. Not officially. Halted in mid sentence. The interviewee went silent. A white car was driving by. Not marked, not distinctive. But not just any white car. The silence that rippled through the park, the fear that ran like a shadow across his face, spoke louder than words. It was time to leave. The protest in the street gathered speed. Everyone had spied the white car driving by. It may as well have been marked ‘secret service.' And that meant only one thing. Mugabe’s ‘law enforcers’ were on their way.

I stopped rolling. Discreetly ejected the tape, slipping the cassette not into my pocket, but hiding it under my pants. Thank god tapes are so small nowadays, I thought. Then I quickly changed the tape. “Let’s talk about cricket”.

The Zimbabwean man looked at me strangely. “I’m not really that interested in cricket actually…”

“I’ve changed the tape. If they saw us filming, if they check our tape – we were just talking about cricket. Nothing wrong with that”. 

“Oh…”

The dawn of realization crossed his face. A hint of his big Zimbabwean grin threatened to come out like the sunshine. For a moment there was relief… just one moment. “Yes, we had a very good cricket team once. But then they all disappeared."

I stopped rolling. Hid the tape. Changed the tape again. Take 3... If it was at all possible to have a conversation in Zimbabwe that wasn’t political. A pleasant conversation about the next World Cup in South Africa ensued. All on tape, ready for review, should any more of those chilling white cars pass us by.

“It’s a wrap.” A safe distance behind the protest, we fled the scene of our “crime."

Years later – I pray the world that the world is not about to witness the real crime: A stolen election, won through endemic corruption and vote-rigging, under the close-fisted rule of none other than President Robert Mugabe.

Wendy Dent is an award winning independent writer/filmmaker, Visiting Scholar at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts 2012-2013, and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2013-2018.  She has been a guest-speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Southern California and Columbia University, among others, speaking on Zimbabwe with special screenings and discussions of her documentary 'No News From Harare' filmed covertly in Zimbabwe about the Robert Mugabe regime.  In May Wendy Dent was a discussion leader on 'Security Beyond Borders' and also 'The Arts/Policy Nexus'  at the World Policy Institute 'Around the Table Gala 2013'. She is also the founder of www.humanrightsonfilm.com

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production