Read our President review from the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival to find out what makes this documentary about Zimbabwe’s elections so important.
Source: President Review: An Eye-Opening Chronicle of Zimbabwe’s Harrowing Struggle for True Democracy – /Film
America just scraped through an election where the President of the United States and a radical sect of his colleagues and constituents incorrectly claimed that there was fraud that resulted in the Republican party losing the presidency. But this is nothing compared to the level of election corruption that has plagued an African nation for over 40 years.
In her new documentary President, director Camilla Nielsson provides an up close and comprehensive look at the supposedly “free, fair, and credible” elections that unfolded in Zimbabwe in 2018 and one hopeful candidate’s campaign to tear down the deceitful and oppressive leaders who have knowingly rigged elections for decades in order to remain in power.
Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with anything that has happened in the Zimbabwe political scene, because Camilla Nielsson does a thorough job of filling you in on the details you need to know in order to fully understand how important the 2018 elections were. This is very much a documentary made to shine a light on a country that often doesn’t get proper, prominent news coverage, especially in the United States.
In 2017, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was removed from power by the Zimbabwe National Army and his former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was appointed in his place. Though this change in leadership was touted as a peaceful transfer of power and a bright new day for democracy in Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa’s leadership from the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) only brought more of the same corruption and oppression that has done nothing to help the nation’s people.
But the people of Zimbabwe saw a glimmer of hope in 2018 when a young and charismatic politician named Nelson Chamisa (seen above) stepped up as the candidate for the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. Camilla Nielsson and her crew followed Chamisa and his campaign team in the four weeks leading up to the election as they prepare to take on what they know will be an unfair and rigged election controlled by ZANU-PF, despite assurances from Mnangagwa and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that the election would be conducted fairly and with great transparency.
Chamisa is set up as a figure who feels like Zimbabwe’s own Barack Obama, even though the color of the MDC is red and seeing a sea of red hats at his rallies creates a little PTSD from the last presidential administration in the United States. At just 40 years old, Chamisa is seen as the man who might finally deliver on the hollow promises that ZANU-PF has been making for decades. He doesn’t hesitate to call out the blatant corruption in the government, and he’s inspiring enough that many of his constituents are willing to put their lives on the line to ensure that true democracy will come to their suffering nation. Nielsson’s lens may be a little too kind to Chamisa, painting him as too much of a hero when he echoes the kind of political talk that has been heard countless times before. But honestly, it’s what he represents for Zimbabwe that’s much more important.
Nielsson clearly had nearly unlimited access to Chamisa during the last leg of the election as the cameras sit in on campaign meetings and press conferences, follow him to many rallies, and even sit alongside him when he’s receiving tips from those trying to alert him to government spies tailing him or threats from Zimbabwe’s army. There’s even a moment when Chamisa’s driver indicates that the security detail trailing his car will be executing some kind of distraction in order to stop another vehicle that has been following them. Zimbabwe’s political scene plays out like an unbelievable political conspiracy thriller, but sadly it’s all too real.
But President doesn’t just focus on the campaign leading up to the election. Unfortunately, despite seemingly approaching a victory with promising poll numbers, Chamisa doesn’t win. It’s undeniably clear that ballots were stuffed and numbers were fudged in order to ensure Mnangagwa won by quite a large margin, especially when the final numbers ended up totaling more than the number of registered voters in many areas. The corruption is just that rampant and obvious. That’s why food distribution to starving citizens was made available at both at Mnangagwa’s rallies and during times Chamisa was holding his rallies, in order to call attention away from the opposition. Yes, providing food to people is used as a political weapon in Zimbabwe.
In the five days that the ZEC is given to tally the votes, it’s clear to the media and voters that the results are being held back so they can be fabricated. Protesters take to the streets, and you see just how crushing of a blow this is to the people of Zimbabwe. If “losing” the election isn’t enough, they get terrorized by the Zimbabwe National Army, blasted by water cannons and frightened by the firing of guns into the air. Some soldiers even shoot into the crowds and intimidate citizens minding their own business near the protest, even as it disperses. Nielsson pieces together horrifying cell phone videos showing these citizens being threatened by their own government and those who are meant to protect them. It’s hard not to see the parallels between these events and those of Black Lives Matter in the United States, and that’s surely the point.
Aside from the campaign and the election itself, President also focuses on the legal battle that followed the election as Chamisa and his team pore over documents that definitively prove that the election results were tampered with. Of course, when the government can rig an entire election, they’re clearly able to influence the outcome of a trial challenging the elections, but that doesn’t keep it from being another gut punch.
This isn’t the first time that Nielsson has covered the hope of democracy in Zimbabwe. Her 2014 documentary Democrats focused on the creation of a new Zimbabwean constitution with various political, local and personal interests making what should have been a proud democratic moment an exhaustive one. She clearly knows her way around the country’s political scene and expertly captures the passion and drive there is among the people of Zimbabwe to have a country that can truly call itself a democracy. It’s infuriating but necessary viewing to better understand the struggles that exist outside of our own borders, both to appreciate what we have in America, but perhaps more importantly, to support their cause so these hurting people can have a better quality of life.