Daniel Koehler ’12 used the university’s top research scholarship to explore the social and agricultural ramifications of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land policy.
The media arts and entertainment major spent seven months in neighboring country Zambia, interviewing local farmers and experts with a culminating project titled “The Tobacco King,” a 20-minute documentary.
George Botha was one of 200 farmers forced off their land in 2000 as a result of 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.
When he set out on his journey, Koehler thought he would find a story of racial reconciliation, but instead 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 says. “You see the tension in the story.”
What is not clear, a purposeful decision by Koehler, is an identification of the “bad guy.” 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 says his film does not lead to a conclusion.
“You walk away with the sense that, yes, it’s complicated, but maybe there’s a chance to make it better,” he says.
The Maryland native lived for a decade in Uganda while growing up. He sought a research topic that would combine two passions – filmmaking 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. 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 says. “I really want to champion the voice of the disempowered and some sort of social issue.”