'Democrats': Film Review

DEMOCRATS Still 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Upfront Films
A privileged look at a process ripe for cynicism.

Two men struggle to reinvent governance in Zimbabwe.

The fact that 91 year-old Robert Mugabe remains president two and a half years after the passage of a constitution intended to create real democracy in Zimbabwe does not bode well for the legacy of the stars of Camilla Nielsson's Democrats, followed here for three years as they work to produce the text of that constitution. Nielsson's fly-on-wall account, which boils a laborious process of national import down to the experience of two men, is both accessible to those with little background on the subject and privileged enough to be of value to students of the country's history; niche theatrical bookings should attract some attention, but the doc will fare best on TV.

Starting in 2008, the film follows representatives of two opposing sides: Douglas Mwonzora, a serious young lawyer with the Movement for Democratic Change; and Paul Mangwana, of Mugabe's ZANU-PF, whose relaxed joviality suggests a man accustomed to having things go his way. The opponents have been tasked to work together for COPAC, the group producing a constitution during the time Mugabe was forced to share power with political rivals.

Their project looks like a noble one: travel to all corners of the country for public meetings, where ordinary folk can make suggestions on topics ranging from term limits to the way judges are selected. Unfortunately, the deck appears to be stacked: ZANU-PF is bussing well-rehearsed "ordinary people" in to meetings, all of whom claim to support a strong president; those with alternative viewpoints feel threatened. At one gathering of 1,200 people, only five felt safe speaking up. Many meetings turn, as reformers put it, "volatile."

Though Mangwana initially shrugs off many of his party's tactics, he warms to his partner on a personal level and eventually comes to admit that, at the very least, his bosses are being shortsighted in response to popular and global pressure.

Nielsson somewhat frustratingly avoids giving us many cues to the passage of time, but nevertheless the film captures some of the drama generated by the public's impatience and Mugabe's maneuvering during the long drafting process. Good vibes flow freely in final scenes, as the men deliver a constitution that passes in a landslide referendum — but things sour at the very end, with hints that the status quo may persist for many years in this country, regardless of the documents its government swears to uphold.

Production company: Upfront Films

Director: Camilla Nielsson

Producers: Henrik Veileborg

Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen

Editor: Jeppe Bodskov

Music: Kristian Eidnes Andersen

No rating, 99 minutes