Camilla Nielsson’s Tribeca doc ‘Democrats’ follows the creation of Zimbabwe’s first constitution

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Zimbabwe is the landlocked country north of South Africa and east of Botswana, best known for its famed Victoria Falls and its longstanding dictator, Robert Mugabe. Most visitors to country drive from Botswana for a day trip to the falls, but Camilla Nielsson traveled to Zimbabwe many times over the course of three years. It took that long for two politicians, Nielsson’s subjects, and their negotiating teams to draft the country’s first constitution. Democrats, the Danish filmmaker’s first feature-length documentary (she has television credits and co-directed Mumbai Disconnected), had its U.S. premiere last night at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In a recent e-mail exchange, Nielsson, who holds an MA in visual anthropology from New York University, said the project grew out of an idea suggested by a Danish journalist who had lived in Zimbabwe for many years. “It wasn’t so much the subject of a new constitution that drew me to the story,” she writes, “but the tale of two political enemies, forced into a joint mission to save the country. It was a Sisyphean task they were given.” Paul Mangwana, the leader of Mugabe’s political party, Zimbabwe African National Union, and Douglas Mwonzora, a member of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, were to complete their task in a few months, but much of that time was spent resolving the issue of Mangwana’s imperious demeanor, which was hindering negotiations.

For half of the documentary, Mangwana is a leering, swaggering bully who speaks of politics as an exercise in “pretending.” At one point, he tells a reporter that if her paper does not stop criticizing him, “the free press will feel my fist.” While Nielsson avoids stereotyping either of her subjects, it is difficult not to appreciate that the antidote to Mangwana is the crafty Mwonzora, who cajoles and sidesteps power and, in the end, hunkers down in protest against it. No documentarian could have wished for more universally recognizable, Machiavellian players.

Throughout the three-year-long negotiations depicted in the documentary, filmed in fly-on-the wall style, Nielsson received incredible behind-the-scenes access to the two politicians. “That was the result of more than one year of applying for official filming permits, followed by a lot of trust from the two main characters involved,” she writes. At first, the politicians were “skeptical” of the project, but as time wore on, Nielsson writes, she began getting phone calls from them, suggesting upcoming sessions she might wish to film. “Douglas Mwonzora,” she recalls, “once described our relationship as ‘a reverse Stockholm syndrome.’”

During production, the crew consisted of Nielsson as sound recordist and Henrik Bohn Ipsen as cinematographer. The two confronted dangerous situations, as is evinced at one point in the film, but Nielsson says that it was not the physical threats that concerned her, nor did her gender put her at greater risk. Rather, it was the constant surveillance by the government: “My phone and other electronic devices were being tapped and hacked, and once I was detained in the airport by the secret police accused of being a Western spy and for undermining President Mugabe’s authority.” She writes that she still becomes anxious if she hears a hissing sound on her phone line. Like most human-rights filmmakers, Nielsson nevertheless feels that what she took away from the experience was invaluable: “It gave me an understanding of ‘the system’ that the people there constantly referred to,” she writes, “because I experienced it on my own.”

Democrats is often thrilling to watch, and it provides a complicated portrait of democracy-in-the-making, which was one of Nielsson’s aims at the outset. While nothing has changed in Zimbabwe since the constitution was voted on and approved, Mangwana underwent a rather startling metamorphosis. Asked about its authenticity, Nielsson writes: “I think his wishes for change within the party are genuine, as was his own personal transformation during the process.” If the documentary’s protagonists appear familiar, and the events in Democrats reminiscent of a ripped-from-the-headlines story in just about any country in the world, the filmmaker articulates the reasons: “Politics is in many ways a similar game whether you are in Copenhagen, Washington or Harare—played mainly by men in suits. Of course, the struggles are different, and are fought by different means, but they are fought by people who are mostly driven by the same fuel.”