President

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Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

President
"Watching Chamisa himself walk through crowds will set your nerves on edge as Neilsson’s camera reveals just how vulnerable he is." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What does it take to pull a country back from a state of tyranny? A collective leap of faith is required. People need to have confidence that others will back them, and that they’ll be successful – at least to the extent that they won’t have to fear violent reprisals from a regime they have failed to overthrow. Making this happen takes a leader whom people can really believe in. When Robert Mugabe finally stood down as President of Zimbabwe in 2017, that leader looked to be Morgan Tsvangirai; but when Tsvangirai died from colorectal cancer just a few months later, the task of leading the country’s main opposition party to victory fell upon the shoulders of 40-year-old lawyer Nelson Chamisa.

Made at some considerable personal risk to those involved, Camilla Nielsson’s documentary has unprecedented access to Chamisa’s campaign, embedded at the very heart of it during the four weeks before the election and throughout the period of instability which followed it. It’s the second time Nielsson has dived into Zimbabwean politics, following her 2014 film Democrats on the replacement of the country’s constitution, and she adopts a similar style here, sticking close and observing rather than relying on interviews or attempting to narrate what’s happening. This adds to the sense of precarity and volatility as we move through densely-packed crowds of excited people or take shelter in tiny offices with loud shouts coming from outside. On more than one occasion, armed soldiers step in to try and intimidate members of the campaign team, apparently unconcerned as to the impression they might make on the journalists.

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Some of what we see is clearly choreographed, some of it spontaneous. One singularly pathetic scene sees a wizened and clearly mentally compromised Robert Mugabe giving a speech which amounts to little more than a telling off for his successors. His words proved important because of the way they cut Emmerson Mnangagwa’s campaign away from its base, but this was really a footnote; the bulk of what he says focuses on his own sorry state as he reminisces about his great achievements in liberating his country as if he ought still to be feted for them, as if he has no real awareness that it was his own actions which cost him that heroic reputation. It’s a tragedy of sorts and a warning to all would-be great men of history: sometimes it’s better to quit whilst you’re ahead.

Though you might think that Zimbabweans would be happy to see the back of Mugabe’s party after decades of economic ruin, the challenges which Chamisa faces in trying to persuade them to change their voting habits are vast. His campaign has far less funding to draw on and is facing a situation in which people expect to be bribed with food in exchange for their votes. Everybody is looking for economic opportunity. He promises that, if elected, he will strive to bring them jobs and growth, but they don’t trust him to stick to his word any more than any other politician. They would rather he proved himself by buying the groceries that they’re selling right now. Meanwhile, activists on Chamisa’s team are reporting instances of violence, including sexual violence, committed against them by supporters of ZANU-PF. Watching Chamisa himself walk through crowds will set your nerves on edge as Neilsson’s camera reveals just how vulnerable he is.

It is, of course, after the election that things get really interesting, as questions are raised about the supposed neutrality of the Zimbabwean Election Commission (ZEC), with some pretty compelling evidence. The problem, pointed out during urgent discussions in Chamisa’s inner circle, is that it’s one thing to prove what didn’t really happen, and quite another to establish what did. Neilsson faces this problem in reverse. It’s easy for her to demonstrate that the election is unfair and that there is misbehaviour on the part of ZANU-PF or its supporters. What she can’t do is show us that there’s no similar behaviour on Chamisa’s side. As a result, we have to take the same leap of faith as the voters, though obviously with a lot less at stake. This is the biggest challenge inherent in the film, but it’s also what makes it compelling viewing. Even if you are already well versed in Zimbabwean politics, this fascinating insight into recent history will show you something new.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2021
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Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. The leader of the opposition MDC party, Nelson Chamisa, challenges the old guard ZANU-PF led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as "The Crocodile." The election tests both the ruling party and the opposition – how do they interpret principles of democracy in discourse and in practice?

Director: Camilla Nielsson

Year: 2021

Country: Denmark, US, Norway

Festivals:

Sundance 2021

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