When deciding how to produce a film about Zimbabwe several themes ran through my head. Some themes appeared to be narratives with a compelling storyline. But conferring with two colleagues who helped developed the film, I soon began a process of elimination on what could work. I was intrigued when the rule of law was suggested as the prism in which to tell the story of the country. But also initially confused.
What did the rule of law mean exactly? How could a country like Zimbabwe even have a rule of law having been governed by a dictator for over thirty years? What was the relationship of the rule of law to Zimbabwe's collapsing economy? to human rights? to democracy? Why had President Robert Mugabe amended Zimbabwe's constitution 17 times? How could a film present a nuanced view of the rule of law?
I learned about the courageous human rights lawyer and her efforts to uphold the law in Zimbabwe through Andrew Meldrum, a journalist and friend of mine who helped in the early development of the film. He got to know Beatrice while she was defending him for "committing journalism" in Zimbabwe, and although acquitted, Meldrum was forcibly deported by the government after living and working there for 23 years. Hearing Andy describe this brave attorney who showed up at midnight wearing a track suit and shining her headlights at the home of a client that was being raided by state police, Beatrice seemed bigger than life.
Reading about her passion for the law and the risk she took to defend victims of Mugabe's regime, it became clear--if Beatrice was willing to participate in the film, the rule of law would not only become a framework in which to tell the story, the film would have an extraordinary central character to make it real.
Once Beatrice agreed to be the focus of the film, we developed a list of her defendants who represented an array of situations in which their rights and the rule of law had been abridged. Several agreed to participate in the film. From two women who direct an organization which leads street protests demanding clean water, affordable food, education for their children, and public safety, to a farmer whose coffee farm had been invaded and stolen by Mugabe loyalists who raped and killed his workers before taking over the farm. During two trips to Zimbabwe and one side trip to London, we filmed with 7 defendants who told their stories. During their interviews, the rule of law was no longer an abstract concept. Defendants spoke about property rights, freedom of speech and movement, being abducted from their bed, trying to participate in how their government is run, demanding public water that won't cause cholera, the need for food that is affordable and accessible, fighting for the right to vote without intimidation, and a state police force that tortures and kills those who don't support Mugabe. As one interview led to another, the rule of law had taken on many human dimensions. It became clear.
Without the rule of law society doesn't have a chance of being "civil." Nor does democracy have a chance of taking hold, without a free and fair election. As we witnessed in Zimbabwe, without the rule of law citizens turn on each other. The police no longer protect you. They protect the regime. Freedom of thought and information becomes high risk as the government takes control of all media. And feeling safe, even in your own home, is no longer taken for granted.
In this toxic environment Beatrice Mtetwa gets up everyday and defends her clients. Often she knows she will lose the case--not because the law is against her but because the politics is. But through the litigation comes a record. Of the abuses. Some 25 years later, Beatrice has developed quite a "narrative of abuse." From this narrative will come accountability - someday - for the crimes that have been committed. Or at least the recognition that people know what happened to whom by whom. Because even in Zimbabwe, with a rule of law that is as "mutilated" as any, the mechanisms remain in place to litigate. To record. To prove that these things did happen. As Beatrice says, "No one can say they didn't know."
While the goal has always been to create a film that would provoke discussion and awareness about Zimbabwe and the rule of law, filming with Beatrice, learning about conditions in the country today and its history under Mugabe, took the film in a direction that was harder hitting in its indictment of the regime and more towards an advocacy position for change. Beatrice's dominance in the film also allows viewers to be inspired by her passion for the law and to understand why she risks her life upholding the law. Using the law to make others accountable and to make a difference is a universal message--one that extends far beyond Zimbabwe's borders.
I heard about the World Justice Forum from Michael Greco, a Boston based attorney and former president of the American Bar Association. Mike was one of the first people we spoke with about using the rule of law as the framework to telling the story of Zimbabwe. I remember him asking if the film was about the rule of law or Beatrice Mtetwa. I said it would be about both--using Beatrice's efforts to illustrate the various principles of the rule of law through her work with various defendants. Mike referred me and co-producer Hopewell Chin'Ono, a Zimbabwean filmmaker I met through the Nieman Foundation, to Hongxia Liu, who was Executive Director of the World Justice Project at the time. After discussing the film with Hongxia she invited us to attend the forum in Barcelona.
Attending WJF III was a real eye-opener -- both in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of the rule of law and meeting with so many of the individuals who participated in the forum. We listened a lot. It was an extraordinary introduction to ways in which the rule of law is working (or not) in countries around the world.