Film Review: Democrats

Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson’s absorbing debut documentary, 'Democrats,' follows two men who head a committee empowered with the drafting of Zimbabwe’s constitution.
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The word “democracy” derives from Ancient Greek, although “democrat” entered our language from the French démocrate—a fact worth mentioning a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. During the French Revolution, the democrats opposed the reigning aristocrats. At the beginning of Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, a documentary about Zimbabwe’s constitutional committee, the entrenched power lies with Paul Mangwana, a minister in President Robert Mugabe’s political party. The “democrat” is Douglas Mwonzora of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The two men, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, are appointed to draft the former British colony’s first democratic constitution.

At this point, Mugabe, a despot, was forced to share power with Morgan Tsvangirai, an arrangement arrived at in 2009 after the MDC won an overwhelming electoral victory. In reality, Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union party (ZANU) were in control of the country, just as they are now. Nielsson filmed on and off for three years inside the landlocked African nation, chronicling the referendum process, and the drafting and signing of the new constitution. Garnering the trust of her two subjects, she gained incredible access to events, especially to the final negotiations. The result is a fascinating, fly-on-wall portrait of patriarchal politics and power. Nielsson, who holds a degree in visual anthropology, maintains journalistic distance throughout, avoiding some common narrative pitfalls in her portrayal of the two protagaonists, Mangwana and Mwonzora.

Mangwana, who threatens a print journalist early in the documentary, employs the tactics of an enforcer, and is at first a contrast to the mild-mannered Mwonzora. Their initial meetings with Zimbabweans during the referendum phase also highlight differences in strategy. Mwonzara carefully explains the purpose of a constitution, and the many ways in which its adoption will lead to legislative reform. His audience is comprised of men and women, and the meeting is held outdoors. Mangwana’s first appearance is indoors, and before an audience of men seated in neat rows; it is obviously a gathering of the troops in defense of Mugabe, Mangwana emphasizing the protection of the status quo. Later, we see the ZANU party methods play out in another referendum meeting. Local authorities intentionally choose a location discrete from the one where citizens are asked to articulate the principles that should form the foundation of the new constitution. While Mangwana corrects the situation by moving attendees to the school where these discussions are to take place, one wonders what would have happened if Nielsson had not been there.

As the documentary unfolds, Mangwana quickly assumes charge of the drafting process, and Mwonzora complains about being marginalized, insisting that he is an equal party to the negotiations. While he represents the possibility of reform in a country where all opposition is quickly suppressed, it is also apparent that he is a bureaucrat the equal of Mangwana in the practice of wielding power. Even when the ZANU administration, flailing in its attempt to maintain absolute power, throws him in jail to stall the constitutional process, Mwonzora emerges confident that he will triumph. Despite his differences with Mangwana, familiarity in this case breeds understanding rather than contempt. At a watshed moment in the negotiations,  Mwonzora caves in on a clause that would rid the country of Mugabe, but would also end any hope for completion of the constitution.

Nielsson’s focused approach to Democrats results in a documentary that provides little context for audiences who may be unfamiliar with the former colony of Rhodesia, or the history of its independence movement that resulted in the establishment of Zimbabwe in 1980. Mugabe, a celebrated revolutionary in that struggle for statehood, quickly consolidated his power to form a one-party state. His notorious Fifth Brigade quelled opposition through several ethnic cleansing campaigns in which tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were slaughtered. The country remains a dictatorship with an horrific human rights record. In the capital of Harare, where Nielsson films the constitutional negotiations taking place in European-style hotels, she sticks to establishing shots of soaring towers rather than the slums where Zimbabweans are without potable water. To be fair, she and her cameraman were closely monitored by government forces.

In any other documentary of this type, Mangwana might emerge the hero because he is the man who is transformed by the constitutional process—but equally impressive is Mwonzora’s compassion for his opponent. At the end of the negotiations, Mangwana’s life is in danger as a result of what his party views as his change of heart. In a scene in which the signing of the constitution is celebrated, Mugabe jokes about Mangwana’s friendship with Mwonzara, and then pointedly intimidates him by remarking on his failure “to know where power has derived from.” What Neilsson’s camera captures is an archetypal pattern evident in every nation in the world, and what in my interview with her she called a game “played mainly by men in suits." To her credit, the filmmaker is not intent on conferring laurels on either of her protagonists beyond calling them “democrats,” men who understand the vagaries of a changing political landscape. 

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