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Zimbabwe: Countdown

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 202-808-4980
Produced by Journeyman Pictures
Directed by Michael Raeburn
VHS, color and b&, 52 min.
Sr. High - Adult
African Studies, Postcolonialism, Political Science, Human Rights

Reviewed by Patricia B. McGee, Coordinator of Media Services, Volpe Library & Media Center, Tennessee Technological University

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 2/11/2005

The Rhodesian government of white supremacist Ian Smith forced Michael Raeburn into exile after the filmmaker’s 1969 examination of white Rhodesians’ attitudes, Rhodesia Countdown. The countdown in the title referred to the amount of time remaining before war erupted. In 1970 civil war "the Chimurenga" did break out, only ending 10 years later with the independence of the nation and the free election of Robert Gabriel Mugabe as its first president. Zimbabwe: Countdown is Michael Raeburn’s powerful and intimate look at the failure of the Zimbabwe government. President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU- PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front) have repressed democracy, destroyed the economy of the country, and terrorized the opposition. Raeburn is once more counting down to chaos, to violence that he believes will pit the urban and middle class population against the followers of Mugabe, a war of black Africans versus black Africans.

What makes Raeburn’s documentary so effective is that as a young man he was a wholehearted supporter of African nationalism and Robert Mugabe, “the hero of my youth.” He believed in Mugabe’s plans for a “democratic, multi-racial society, free of colonial oppression.” Zimbabwe was once a model of a post-colonial nation, yet by all measurable statistics, life in Zimbabwe is a nightmare. Today Zimbabwe is characterized by “rage, riots, killing and starvation, doom: this is where we are today.” The country is on the verge of collapse. Life expectancy is under 40 years, a decrease of over 15 years, 70% of the population is unemployed, 20% of the population has HIV/AIDS, the Gross Domestic Product is declining, and inflation in 2003 at one point was a high as 623%. What went wrong?

According to Raeburn the current crisis began when the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, defeated Mugabe’s referendum on constitutional changes in February 2000. Mugabe had intended to solidify power by implementing constitutional changes that would severely limit democracy and restrict the activities of opposition parties. Mugabe targeted the MDC, urbanites loosely allied with the white commercial farmers, as relics of post-colonial repression. ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi leader of the War Veterans of the independence struggle orchestrated Farm Invasions to force the removal of white farmers and draconian measures restricting basic liberties have been pushed through Parliament. Today while Zimbabwe is on the edge of catastrophe, governmental rhetoric is heavily laden with references to oppressive imperialist sabotage by western nations and racist language ironically reminiscent of white supremacist Rhodesia.

Raeburn’s Zimbabwe: Countdown is an engrossing, well paced, and informative look at the origins of the present chaos in the country and a revealing examination of what happens to a developing nation when the leadership resorts to any means to retain power regardless of the consequences for the nation. It is difficult to imagine how Zimbabwe, even with elections scheduled in March 2005, will be able to slow its descent into chaos and violence. The picture quality of the film is good, but at times the dialog is difficult to understand. Narration is lucid, and the subtitles are easily read. One final cautionary note, scenes of graphic violence may render this film unsuitable for younger audiences.


  • African Film Festival First Prize, Milan, 2003
  • Winner of the "Signis International Jury Award" at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival, 2003