Directed by Camilla Nielsson
Imagine every hackneyed adjective ever dropped in praise of a thriller: taut, riveting, bravua, gripping, pulse-pounding, hard-boiled, a roller coaster of emotion—it is hard not to lavish them all on Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, winner of the festival’s top documentary prize. What’s easy is assuming the film’s title is a simple ironic inversion, as Nielsson and her crew step into a decisive turn in Zimbabwean politics, following Robert Mugabe’s 2008 reelection as President—the fifth of its kind, in one of the most blatantly stolen elections of the last 10 years. While Mugabe’s iron-fisted Zanu-PF party runs the government from one end of the country to the other, the ancient dictator is met with enough international pressure, rendered in one of Nielsson’s handy transitional edits as a succession of shrugging and finger-wagging Western heads of state, to form a “coalition government,” with challenger Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement For Democratic Change (MDC).
Soon a Don Fanucci-esque Zanu-PF spokesman named Paul Mangwana and a geeky progressive MDC lawyer named Douglas Mwonzora are meeting to collaborate on a new draft Constitution, nervously checking one another out from the get-go while the film diligently shreds anything as simple as a presumed good/bad guy duality. Their team embarks on a nationwide tour of town hall meetings; Nielsson’s lens sheepishly tilts to the floor of their vehicle while Mwonzora is bullied out of one of them by Zanu-PF goons. “One day,” he muses afterwards, “the land will be free.” The draft carries reforms that are, for Zimbabwean politics, radical—in particular, the proposal that gets it suspended, throwing Mangwana’s safety into question: a new 10-year limitation on presidential terms following the 2008 election. Eventually, Zanu-PF manages to consolidate and defang the new draft, even after its own delegate pushes it through—celebrating the new unity government as a facade for aid donors.
A mess of other decisive events happened after the reelection: in 2008 alone, Tsvangirai’s wife died in a highly suspect car accident, and government ministers inflated the Zimbabwean economy into the ground. This timing was made especially bad in a subsequent food security crisis-cum-cholera outbreak later that year, which led Mugabe to declare a national state of emergency. Nielsson’s insane access to the drafters comes at the expense of these historical contexts, the film opting instead to play scenes out in what feels like real-time, shot with a curiously wide aspect ratio. An ambient score rises and falls mildly; there are no sitdown interviews, and scant montage. Jeppe Maagaard Bødskov’s unobtrusive editing proves masterful, the film’s pulse quickening as it narrows in on its topic. While Mugabe’s final appearance in Democrats is a characteristically opaque piece of political theater, Nielsson’s film is not a treatise on this particular dictatorship as much as a glimpse at what life is like wherever policymakers are living at mortal risk.
The film is currently seeking US distribution.