Zimbabwe: ‘We went from an election environment to a war zone’ says ‘President’ filmmaker Nielsson

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 30 July 2021 10:02

photo still from film ‘President’

What looks like gripping thriller is in fact a documentary of Zimbabwe's road to democracy through the lens of Camilla Nielsson in her second film, 'President'. The Danish filmmaker and anthropologist came back to the country to challenge the banning of her first film 'Democrats' only to once be again inspired to pick up her camera.

Her first film Democrats (2014), a riveting documentary tracing the tortuous process of cross-party negotiations which produced the country’s 2013 constitution, was critical of Robert Mugabe’s autocratic government. The film received universal acclaim, winning the top prize at the Tribeca festival. It was banned in Zimbabwe though, deemed by the censorship board as ‘not suitable for showing to the public’.

Nielsson challenged this ban in court, a tortuous two-and-half-year battle that ended after Mugabe was ousted. In January 2018, she flew to Harare to make a final presentation before the court. A high court judge lifted the ban and while attending a celebratory dinner, one of the Democrats’ protagonists suggested to Camilla that the forthcoming elections could be another chance to film Zimbabwe’s democracy in action.

It was a concept that intrigued Nielsson even though she had started work on another project. However, she put it on hold and began to work on President. She traces the link between the two films saying: “Looking back, I think both films are a body of work that describes two different attempts at introducing a constitutional democracy in Zimbabwe.”

A ‘President’ is born

President premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 where it won the special jury prize for vérité filmmaking.

After Mugabe was deposed in a military coup that was masterminded by his own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF), Emmerson Mnangagwa (a former deputy and ally) rose to power pledging a commitment to democratic transition. President is a high-stakes account of this transition.

Scoring unprecedented access, Nielsson and her team are embedded within the ranks of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alliance, a coalition of opposition parties headed by charismatic lawyer and politician Nelson Chamisa. Nielsson and her team employ a ‘boots on the ground’ approach that documents the events leading up to the elections that legitimised Mnangagwa’s presidency.

A thriller found in ‘President’

Nielsson’s gift lies in her ability to fashion out a compelling narrative from footage of politicians politicking. This propulsive direction gives President the urgency of a thriller. Her camera is ever present, but at a passive distance.

Change delayed is not denied. Our time is coming. Africa needs change and it is possible to birth a new change. It will take courage, discipline and the willingness to fight for what is our right.

Conveniently, most high-level political meetings are conducted in English – Zimbabwe’s official language; but Nielsson speaks enough Shona by now to get by when there is a switch.

“A lot of what is communicated in films is not necessarily what is said, but [what is in] in the subtext, the emotions, the energies and how people move or relate to each other. I am a keen observer of those little things.”

Film’s protagonist: Nelson Chamisa

Nelson Chamisa emerges from the sprawling narrative as the film’s protagonist. Although only 40 years old at the time, Chamisa was a founding member of the MDC – Zimbabwe’s main opposition party led by former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai – and had served as youth leader of the movement.

Tsvangirai succumbed to colon cancer about six months before the general elections and Chamisa took the reins of the opposition alliance. When Emerson Mnangagwa was announced winner of the presidential elections, Chamisa provided leadership for the opposition’s judicial response. His attempts at claiming a mandate were halted when the courts sided with President Mnangagwa and the ruling party.

President is sympathetic to Chamisa, presenting him as a thoughtful, charismatic leader. Nielsson speaks about her fascination with the former minister of information, communication and technology during the unity government, saying: “I think neither the international community nor the ruling party took Chamisa seriously as a candidate. He was either too young or too inexperienced. From my experiences with him at the rallies and in the rural area, he is truly a people’s man. I saw how he is able to connect and give people a sense of hope.”

Chamisa speaks with The Africa Report about the impetus for his participation in President. “The story of public leadership always has to be recorded. President tells a real story of real people, real lives, real events in real time,” he says.

Despite the political and judicial setbacks, Chamisa remains upbeat about Zimbabwe’s democratic future. “Change delayed is not denied. Our time is coming. Africa needs change and it is possible to birth a new change. It will take courage, discipline and the willingness to fight for what is our right,” he says.

For the Zimbabwean people

The most harrowing sequence in President is the visual presentation of the events of 1 August 2018, when the military opened fire on unarmed protesters demanding the timely release of the presidential results.Six people lost their lives in the aftermath. Nielsson recalls the traumatic events of that day.

“Suddenly we went from an election environment to a war zone. We were not prepared for this at all as a crew. We had no bullet proof vests and had to withdraw,” she says.

The shooting sequence in the film is a combination of footage obtained by Nielsson’s team as well as secondary material sourced from media, activists and local filmmakers who were on ground. Editing footage of the carnage was for Nielsson the most emotionally tasking part of making President. “When we began to look at the footage, it was overwhelming, and I had to step away. My editor continued the work in my absence. Thankfully, we had talked about it and I had set up the structure ahead,” she says.

It is important for Nielsson that the people of Zimbabwe get to see President. Nielsson is mulling avenues beyond local theaters that will make the film available at the grassroot level. She says: “We are working very hard to [have the film] release[d] in Zimbabwe as soon as possible. My ambition is to have every Zimbabwean who is interested see the film free of charge.”

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