This weekend we’re watching: The fight for Zim’s soul
Filmmaker Camilla Nielsson flexes her astonishing access in ‘President’, a gripping investigative documentary chronicling the rigged Zimbabwean elections of 2018 from within the opposition’s campaign.
President is an effortlessly thorough investigative documentary, directed by courageous journalist/filmmaker Camilla Nielsson, detailing the rigged 2018 Zimbabwean election. It is also the opening night film of the 23rd Encounters Film Festival 2021, which begins on Thursday, 10 June, at an invite-only screening. There will be a limited public screening (you can book for the screening on this link) at 6pm on Thursday, 17 June, followed by a live webinar Q&A with Nielsson hosted by Daily Maverick (you can register for the post-screening Q&A on this link).
President is essentially a sequel to Democrats, Nielsson’s acclaimed 2014 film on the tenuous construction of Zimbabwe’s first Constitution under the bloody rule of Robert Mugabe, so the first thing that it does is bring you up to speed on what’s happened in the interim since the first film.
We briefly run through the dwindling days of Mugabe’s reign of terror and the notorious tyrant’s ousting in the 2017 military coup, led by former prime minister and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Just when the country was preparing for a crucial electoral showdown between Zanu-PF and the opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), the MDC’s president, Morgan Tsvangirai, died of cancer.
Tsvangirai’s successor, Nelson Chamisa, is a 40-year-old lawyer who has fought Mugabe’s regime since his days as a student activist. President follows Chamisa’s efforts to secure democracy from within his campaign.
The film is divided into three acts – the suspenseful build-up to the elections; the nerve-wracking tension of the ballot counting and the results announcements; and the disheartening legal battle of the aftermath.
We begin amid the volatility of Tsvangirai’s death. Electrifying MDC rallies, rumbling with the cheers of Chamisa’s elated supporters. The hope, passion, and fury of the people, and the immense gravity of the stakes, are overwhelming.
Despite having led the coup that unseated Mugabe, Mnangagwa had been Mugabe’s trusted adviser for 37 years in Cabinet, and is still the leader of the party that has oppressed Zimbabwe since its independence. As the challenger to this Goliath, Chamisa represents an optimistic promise of salvation.
The anticipation of the election is emotionally immersive. From both sides of the crowd, Nielsson captures the absolute frenzy of desperation and love and hope entrusted to Chamisa. But not long before the election, there is a change in leadership at the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) that carries with it an ominously familiar stench of political capture.
The MDC must fight not just Zanu-PF but also the electoral system itself. Watching the flaming legal hoops they are forced to jump through is infuriating but never dull. Nielsson’s talent for political thrillers hinges on her ability to frame technical disputes in an enthralling and accessible way.
She does so without the crutch of narration or talking heads, relying on comprehensive footage and human moments to extract the drama, and only indulging in brief texts to ensure clarity.
The absurdity of the saga is exemplified in the occasionally unexpected reactions of Chamisa’s team, who are frequently so baffled by the blatancy of the ZEC’s corruption that they cannot help but laugh.
Nielsson’s access is as good as it gets. While we have front row seats to emergency press conferences, violent protests and private meetings, one can almost forget that there’s a person behind the camera who has somehow been allowed to be there.
At one point, inside the MDC Command Centre, Nielsson flexes her level of access by filming a sign saying “Restricted. No Entry”. When Chamisa goes into hiding after receiving a death threat, Nielsson is there. When Chamisa’s team strategises the timing to claim victory of the election in the face of military intervention, Nielsson is there.
The last act of the film shows the devastating suppression of democracy in Zimbabwe’s first publicly broadcast courtroom drama. For a political party with the power to clumsily rig an election without consequence, rigging a court case is a cinch. No mountain of evidence is high enough to persuade a sufficiently bribed or intimidated judge.
President is a meticulously documented and impartial account of Zimbabwe’s political turmoil. If we are truly impartial in assessing the facts of a situation, it is seldom that we are able to remain morally neutral. Factual impartiality necessitates moral partiality. Yet when Mnangagwa is sworn in as president at the end of the film, there is President Cyril Ramaphosa, chuckling cheerfully next to him, seemingly morally impartial, politely refraining from “interfering” with Zimbabwe’s internal process.
The battle for a democratic Zimbabwe was not won when Mugabe was overthrown. President is a particularly important film for South Africans because we cannot be impartial to such an abuse of power in our neighbouring country, as we ourselves are only now crawling out of the clutches of State Capture. We owe it to our neighbours to push for sanctions against Mnangagwa’s government and to remain aware of the political situation.
Nelson Chamisa and Camilla Nielsson are scheduled to speak about President and the fight for Zimbabwe’s soul on the Clement Manyathela Show on 702 at 10.30am on Friday, 11 June. DM/ML
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