Democrats centres around the 2008 election in Zimbabwe; one that made international headlines for the corruption, controversy and violence that engulfed it, and one that hasn’t received a such an intimate external study until now with Camilla Nielsson’s film. The narrative that emerges, however, is more focused to specific machinations, figures, and plots within the broader context of the election – rather than a study of the election itself. In this, Democrats shifts from being a broad survey of something that has been covered by news outlets extensively, towards a fascinating study of political corruption and humanity in relation to power in the 21st century.
For context, the film emerges out of the period where Mugabe’s party ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) faced increasing international pressure after his time in power began to form a dictatorial trend. In response to this, Mugabe agreed to write a new (and largely symbolic) constitution. This lead to a media extravaganza prompting an narrative of the country’s leadership even being possibly contestable. Over the course of the film, this story is quickly shown as largely manufactured and discounted for a far more interesting focus. While there’s a certain nihilism in the early assumption of Zimbabwe is a country unlikely to change in leadership in the near future, it allows Nielsson to take a more specific focus on political life in the country, leading to a far more multi-faceted work by its conclusion.
In Democrats, the opposition leader, Douglas Mwonzora (Movement for Democratic Change) is placed alongside ZANU-PF’s negotiator Paul Mangwana, a figure who explicitly embraces corruption and espouses the importance of verisimilitudes in politics over any specific moral compass. At least, he does when he’s introduced. Over the course of the film, an increasingly insightful character emerges, with Mangwana finding his humanity constantly being appealed to – and often responding to this. The two are faced with the task of essentially creating democracy in Zimbabwe, through a series of consultations and community meetings across the country, however, the legitimacy of their task is often implicitly questioned.
Denmark’s Camilla Nielsson directs Democrats with a focus on observation, rather than commentary and analysis. While it’s impossible to ever achieve an absolutely objective recount in political documentaries, the lack of an overarching narrative proselytising the joys of Western Democracy is a welcome feature of Nielsson’s documentary. It’s never patronising, and the story it tells feels tangible, honest and never at odds with those who are making the documentary. It’s not much to ask, but in the history of Western filmmakers in Africa, it remains a rare sight. Part of what makes Nielsson’s film so insightful is the degree of access she was given in making the film. Nielsson’s access to Mugabe’s inner circles was exclusive for a filmmaker from the West, and the length of her involvement – 3 years – is similarly unprecedented. It’s often unclear – especially considering how Mugabe is portrayed in the film – how this access was so extensive and so prolonged, however, the results are more than evident.
Mangwana and Mwonzora become intertwined throughout the documentary, as their story slowly shifts from actively trying to improve democracy to simply trying to maintain their own survival. Mangwana takes his task too seriously, initially, and becomes at odds with his own party, forcing the Movement for Democratic Change to altering their demands in order to avoid serious repercussions. There is an utter hopelessness that frames so much of Democrats. All of Mangwana and Mwonzora’s efforts to change the system throughout the film are compromised, pushed back against and defeated. Both men are faced with threats, imprisonment and the perpetual defiance of a regime that isn’t ready to change. Mugabe never has any intentions of actively allowing power to shift in this documentary, and as something filmed in 2008, the outcome is already clear from the onset of the film. Nothing changes. With this implicit truth already established, Camilla Nielsson directs a film that is far more broader, intimate and complex than a piece of filmic journalism following a political campaign. Democrats is a tragic examination of hope in a hopeless context, as two figures – who are well aware their efforts are going to be fruitless – oscillate between striving for change and falling back into the ever-present and ever-repressive regime that engulfs them. There is a positive lining to the perpetual frustration Mangwana and Mwonzora face. Their persistence gives them hope, as it gives the viewer hope. While they don’t achieve their goals, their hunger for change and their absolute dedication to trying to achieve it is tangible, inspiring and one of the most important things Democrats has to offer.