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How to Steal an Election (Sundance Review of Camilla Nielsson’s PRESIDENT)

By Wilfred Okiche

In 2017, the world rejoiced as former Zimbabwean president and tyrant Robert Mugabe was finally ousted from office, kicking and screaming after his own military forces compelled him to resign. The next year, fresh elections were held, opening a new chapter in the Southern African country’s long and chequered road to democracy. 

It was the first time since gaining independence in 1980 that the country would be holding elections without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. 

President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling party ZANU–PF, himself a former Mugabe lieutenant, was expected to go into the race against opposition leader and former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. With only a few months to go to Election Day, Tsvangirai succumbed to colorectal cancer and the mantle of opposition leadership fell to Nelson Chamisa, a young lawyer and organizer but hardly a tested politician. The result of the election is now history with Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF mustering enough votes to stay in power. 

Democracy had come to Zimbabwe at long last, the headlines read.

President, the masterful new documentary by Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson delves deeper into the electoral process that led to the emergence of the democratically-elected Mnangagwa administration. In some ways, President, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won a special jury award for vérité filmmaking in the World Cinema Documentary category, is a companion piece to Nielsson’s 2014 documentary, Democrats. The film was so impactful it was banned in Zimbabwe by Mugabe forces. In other ways, President is a stand-alone film despite continuing the saga of Zimbabwe’s slow but erratic march towards democracy.

In the weeks leading up to the elections, Nielsson and her team are embedded in the MDC Alliance, a coalition of opposition parties with Chamisa as flagbearer. Chamisa proves the star of President as he comes across as a conscientious leader with charisma to burn, effectively stepping into the big shoes of the late Tsvangirai.

Like Democrats- a bipartisan chronicle of Zimbabwe’s constitution-making process- the film is entirely free of narration, as Nielsson deploys her superior observatory skills to painstakingly detail how the election was practically stolen by the ruling party. Recalling the landmark work of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman, President is cinema verité at its finest and most engaging. 

Nielsson is able to fashion out a compelling narrative that has all the urgency of a political thriller from reams of footage of politicians politicking. Her camera is ever present but at a passive distance as she and her cinematographer DP Henrik Bohn Ipsen are allowed into rooms where the cookie is made. This access is instantly transmitted into a veritable study of political processes at work.

Nielsson trails Chamisa and his team as they go on campaign rallies to meet the people where they are, engage with special interest groups and partake in strategy meetings. In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Nielsson and her team are present on ground when the Zimbabwean army fires at peaceful protesters who, days after the election, gather to protest the delay in announcing results. Using both footage from her team as well as other journalistic accounts, Nielsson draws audiences briefly into the tragedy of that day’s events. 

Eventually the action moves to the courts, where once again Zimbabwe’s bona fides are tested. It is no spoiler to report that the elections were upheld in Mnangagwa’s favor and while this development was devastating to Chamisa and his supporters, it was also a situation where democratic process was activated, at least at face value. President captures the mood on the streets and tracks the noise as it gives way from excitement to strained indifference. It will be interesting to see how the country engages with the next general elections.

If there is an ultimate message to be taken from President, it is Nielsson’s unspoken but easily gleaned charge that democracy takes continued work and one election alone or bits of progress must not be the basis to give up on a country. Building credible and durable systems take time and effort: Democracy must therefore be nurtured deliberately and collectively, lest it should give way to tyranny, of which Zimbabweans have seen more than their fair share.