Danish director Camilla Nielsson’s documentary President (2021) is an up-close, intimate tale. It follows the election travails of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance and its leader, Nelson Chamisa.
Winner of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Verité Filmmaking, the film deploys an “in the moment” technique as it follows the lead-up to the 2018 general elections.
It documents Chamisa’s battle against the governing ZANU-PF party leader and acting Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa ousted Zimbabwe’s 37-year ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017. As the film’s promotional material explains: “As the election looms closer, it becomes increasingly clear that … an election is no guarantee of a democratic outcome.”
If you have lingering hopes that the ZANU-PF soldiers’ coup replacing the doddering nonagenerian would leave Mugabe’s legacy behind, settle down for an intense viewing.
Your hopes will crash, with the opposition troops that President follows. They will die, shot down as brutally as the six demonstrators – and bystanders – displaying their anger at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s delayed election tallies.
But perhaps enough Zimbabwean politics-watchers in southern Africa can move the discussion beyond the liberal good vs evil platitudes repeated by the film’s reviewers to date. A local audience should offer critical and nuanced views.
A Fulbright graduate of visual anthropology and filmmaking at New York University, director Nielsson has several socially conscious films under her belt, often about the plight of children, in Afghanistan, Darfur and India. Her famed documentary Democrats (2014) covered Zimbabwe’s 2010-2013 constitution-making excursion.
President avoids feeding the audience a lot of background history and politics. Nielsson says: “We … try to be there when things happen, instead of telling it all backwards and coming up with some sort of analysis.”
The film is sold as a political thriller. But as Eric Kohn – perhaps the sole, though mild, critical voice – writes: the long meetings with Chamisa and company debating how to beat the unbeatable are “less thrilling than exhaustive, a kind of informational activism in feature form”.
Maybe 45 wasted minutes covering meetings could have been used to fill in some glaring gaps that local audiences will notice.
One such moment might have followed the (unnamed) academic Phillan Zamchiya. (The film does not identify enough of its characters.) In a hotel room, Chamisa’s lawyerly team debates the next steps. It becomes starkly apparent that this election will go down the drain too.
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