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Lumen Scholar's film explores Zambian life after land reform

Senior Daniel Koehler's upcoming documentary tackles the complex interaction of race, politics and economics in the African nation.

Senior Daniel Koehler with Associate Professor Brooke Barnett

By Caitlin O’Donnell ‘13

There’s a perfect storm brewing in Zambia, and no one seems to know.

George Botha was one of 200 farmers forced off their land in 2000 as a result of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform policy, which granted black veterans from the wars of the 1970s the ability to take white-owned farms without compensation. Now living next door in Zambia, the farmers have found that the racially charged conflicts that defined life in their former home are again flaring up.

Elon senior Daniel Koehler is using the university’s top prize in a project exploring the social and agricultural ramifications of Mugabe’s controversial land policy. His undergraduate research is the most recent in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen scholars in the Class of 2012.

The media arts and entertainment major spent seven months in Zambia interviewing Botha, his workers and local experts. With the help of Associate Professor Brooke Barnett, his Lumen Scholar mentor from the School of Communications, Koehler's culminating project is titled “The Tobacco King,” a 20-minute documentary now in post-production.

When he set out on his journey, Koehler thought he would find a story of racial reconciliation. Instead, he discovered a complex tale about a white man struggling to start anew, attempting to run his farm against the background of growing dissent among his workers.

While the influx of white Zimbabwean farmers has more than doubled the annual tobacco crop in Zambia, the workers believe they are worked too much and too hard, often citing race as the reason. “What’s interesting is that these farmers in Zimbabwe, many of them were known for their racist tendencies, and they carried these into Zambia,” Koehler said. “You see the tension in the story.”

The tension is certainly clear between the white Zimbabwean farmers and the black Zambian workers. It’s also clear as Botha battles with identity and anger issues after being forced to leave behind an entire livelihood in Zimbabwe.

What is not clear, a purposeful decision by Koehler, is an identification of the “bad guy.”

“Some documentaries have a tendency to dumb down the issue and choose someone who they can say is evil and the antagonist and then really sympathetic characters to play on the viewers’ sympathies,” he said. “It toys with people’s emotions rather than getting to the story of what’s actually going on.”

Koehler, who originally intended to study biology, said he considers himself a humanitarian first and a documentarian second.

“The medium through which I help people is film. I want to effect change,” he said. “I really want to champion the voice of the disempowered and some sort of social issue.”

The Maryland native lived for a decade in Uganda while growing up. He sought a research topic that would combine two passions – film making and Africa. When he heard the complicated history of the Zimbabwean land policy, he decided to examine the effects of starting over in a new homeland.

While many documentaries about Africa have a tendency to perpetuate stereotypes, Koehler said, his work takes a fresh look at the continent.

“It’s a story that no one has really heard of,” he said. “It’s not about AIDS, not about disease, not about wildlife, not about a safari adventure. It’s about agriculture and the relationships between people.”

The displacement of the farmers had consequences on a personal level. While Botha’s initial reaction was anger, Koehler said, there were also traces of fear, pain and a profound sense of loss.

In Koehler’s mind, a documentary does not need to be objective, but the complexity of the situation in Zambia warrants such an approach. Although it would be easy to vilify Botha for his treatment of workers, Koehler said his film does not lead to a conclusion. He hopes that it instead sparks an intellectual and emotional response in his audience.

“You walk away with the sense that, yes, it’s complicated, but maybe there’s a chance to make it better,” he said. “It’s really simple. All it involves is treating people with a level of respect.”

The Lumen prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

The name for the Lumen prize comes from Elon’s historic motto “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

Barnett said Koehler is a dedicated filmmaker off to a great start in his professional pursuits.

“He has already produced films on serious issues such as access to college for low-income and first generation college students, and on a race riot in the 1960s in downtown Burlington,” Barnett said. “He is passionate about social causes and using his talents to draw attention to them.”

An Honors Fellow, Koehler is also involved with elondocs, Periclean Scholars and Teaching and Learning Technologies. He said he hopes to have his completed documentary accepted into the Full Frame Film Festival, among others. He plans to continue documenting socially significant issues, though he hasn’t set his sights on an exact topic quite yet.

“From the practical side, the Lumen prize gave me the funds to get equipment, travel there and live in the country for seven months,” he said. “It added a whole level of enthusiasm. And it helped me see that what I want to do is actually possible.”

Eric Townsend,
12/16/2011 8:30 AM