President serves as an unofficial sequel to the documentary Democrats, a 2014 Danish documentary about the contentious 2008 election in Zimbabwe and the subsequent coalition’s attempts to redraft the country’s constitution. Having unlimited access to campaigns and negotiations over a period of 3 years, Nielsson delivered what was considered an accurate account of behind-the-scenes violence during this process of “hearing the people”. Ironically, the censorship board banned the documentary from being screened in Zimbabwe, a decision which was overturned in 2015 following a landmark lawsuit and test for the country’s freedom of press and speech. Being from Denmark, there was obviously an advantage to letting Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights contest her case with fewer repercussions. Yet, the ban and her startling documentary didn’t deter the filmmaker from pursuing another documentary about Zimbabwe’s elections.
President is a behind-the-scenes exploration of Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections as an opposition front-runner contends with the powerful old guard. While Democrats was deemed to be a fair reflection of both parties, resisting the urge to villify Robert Mugabe even further, Nielsson’s latest documentary is taken from the inside perspective of Nelson Chamisa, the Presidential candidate for the MDC Alliance ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2018 election. There was much hope and optimism following the military coup in which Robert Mugabe was dethroned, a dictator who seemed destined to rule until the grave. Succeeded by a man who served as his advisor for 37 years, it was naïve for anyone to think the political changeover and installation of another loyal ZANU-PF member would bring about mass reform. Testament to the party’s reputation, the events documented in President reinforce this suspicion.
The documentary picks up the story from the “renaissance” and miraculous overthrow of Mugabe, offering context to the state of the nation. Spurred by the renewed hope for Zimbabwe, the groundswell of overwhelming support for the MDC Alliance makes it seem inevitable for a new political regime. Just as the MDC Alliance are preparing for a tickertape parade, the stoic and would-be martyr Morgan Tsvangirai succumbs to cancer just four months ahead of the national election. Taking over the reins from the great Tsvangirai is Nelson Chamisa, sticking to their headstrong, diplomatic and peaceful agenda. While reeling from the loss of their spiritual leader, the MDC Alliance remain confident of a win for Chamisa ahead of Mnangagwa.
“Please don’t try this at home.”
It seems that the only thing that stands between the MDC Alliance and an overhaul for the country is Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission, better known as ZEC. President chronicles the big political rallies, military intervention, sentiment on the streets, riot police action and the MDC Alliance’s efforts to ensure a free and fair election. From the ballot to the results, the docu-thriller captures the highs and lows of this potential turning point for Zimbabwe. President offers an intimate fly-on-the-wall portrait of a 40-year-old lawyer burdened with the nation’s hopes of a better tomorrow but it’s so much more. The narrative plays out like a boxing match build-up as the underdog rises up to take on the reigning champ, who’s clearly threatened and doing everything in his power to sabotage what must surely be destiny.
In a year of worldwide political turmoil, a glimmer of hope for a tattered and weary Zimbabwe is thwarted by bullying, corruption and one-sided government agencies. Cresting on the hope of what must surely be inevitable change, President allows us to live vicariously through the MDC Alliance’s brave faces. Filmed over 2 years ago, Nielsson brings the story to life with excitement and urgency as if reporting live news, identifying the game players and letting facial expressions tell the story. Having directed Democrats, she goes up a level from on-the-ground political representatives, who make an appearance in this film, to the actual Presidential figureheads.
President is an earnest, heartfelt and powerful documentary about dismantling absolute power. Set in a nation where reporting is more like propaganda, it’s yet another welcome shake up for their stern political system. While President favours the MDC, largely owing to the party’s open-handed approach and willingness to be filmed, the cold-light-of-day footage captures what can only be skullduggery as facts, figures and faces speak for themselves. If Democrats had the censorship review board in disarray with its handheld blast of raw and honest reporting, you can only imagine what President is going to achieve. Nielsson’s fearless filmmaking is the kind of intrepid political coverage that can influence the way the world sees a situation. In Zimbabwe’s case, where corruption runs deep and democracy is an illusion, one can only hope freedom of press and speech ensures this film reaches the people.
The bottom line: Powerful