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The 2018 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, fought between former vice president Emmerson “the crocodile” Mnangagwa and the bright young opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa, were a dismal affair rife with election fraud, if you follow the persuasive arguments mounted by documaker Camilla Nielsson in President. Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer running on an anti-corruption, pro-employment platform, is obviously the people’s candidate, but can his team buck the dirty tricks and ballot-stuffing of his adversary? It’s a through-the-looking-glass moment in history that can’t help but echo the recent election furor in you-know-what-country.
Being all about stolen elections, President has an extraordinary topicality that’s a double-edged sword, because while it will gain from the interest stirred by the American elections around the world, it will also fall victim to many viewers’ emotional burnout and spent moral indignation. Bowing in the Sundance world documentary competition, it gets its chance to engage American audiences in another bitterly contested electoral battle, complete with armed riot police, chaotic press conferences and civilian casualties.
The film is a sequel to Nielsson’s Tribeca-winning 2014 doc Democrats, which took a close look at the political battles around the establishment of Zimbabwe’s first democratic constitution. Like its predecessor, President exudes a passion for politics that corrals viewers into the relatively uncharted political territory of Africa. Yet it is an environment that will feel oddly familiar to election junkies, who can relive the tension, team spirit and the excitement it generates.
The focus is on Chamisa, shown as a hero to the hungry and oppressed masses. The filmmakers appear to have enormous access to his inner circle, which they shoot from behind closed doors and at crucial insiders’ meetings. Not having the funds of his rival, he campaigns at outdoor rallies, where he connects strongly with red-hatted people who bravely turn out. In one mega-rally before a glorious sea of supporters, he solicits an “open hand” welcome that is a thrill to watch.
Yet the onscreen drama can feel down-staged by the filmmakers’ chosen approach of journalistic veracity, in which one event follows another without narrative build-up, troughs or peaks. Nor are there strong characters to identify with, apart from the taciturn, worried-looking candidate himself. In contrast to Jill Li’s recent Chinese doc Lost Course, which recounts a grassroots democratic movement in a fishing village, his staff hardly emerge as individuals, remaining mostly cogs in an election machine gone frustratingly awry.
The pre-credit sequence is a fast-forwarded history lesson in which we learn that, following their forcible removal of dictator-president Robert Mugabe after 38 years in office, the military generals have promised democracy will prevail. But the Zimbabwe Electoral Committee (ZEC) does not inspire trust. It seems anything but politically impartial, an impression that increases as it delays handing over the presidential election results, long after other races on the same ticket have been called.
Suspense grows as the odds become overwhelming against Chamisa’s team. Though confident that their man can win more votes than Mnangagwa, they are concerned about not being allowed to sign off on the printing of ballots, whose whereabouts is unknown to them. Their worst fears are soon realized. As a side issue, the government is distributing food to hungry families timed to coincide with their rallies, even recording voting registration numbers before handing out the aid.
The pace quickens as the election approaches and the gloves come off. Poll workers are beaten and raped. The government sends in riot police with live ammo to break up crowds supporting Chamisa and there is blood on the streets. His loyalists are not surprised. They know they are risking their lives and openly announce they are willing to die for their cause.
DP Henrik Bohn Ipsen, who also shot Democrats, gets into some situations that must have been quite dangerous as he captures the chaos and churning of a frightened crowd in cross-fire. His brief portraits of 95-year-old Mugabe and the enigmatic Mnangagwa are little gems.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Final Cut for Real, Louverture Films, Sant & Usant
Director, screenwriter: Camilla Nielsson
Producers: Signe Byrge Sorensen, Joslyn Barnes
Coproducers: Anne Kohncke, Anita Rehoff Larsen
Executive producers: Susan Rockefeller, Danny Glover, Tone Grottjord
Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editor: Jeppe Bodskov
Music: Jonas Colstrup
World sales: Cinephil
English, Shona dialogue
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