This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
“I want to befriend my former enemies. And get them on my side… change the picture and be seen as a man of peace, even if you are not. The game of politics is pretending.”— Paul Mangwana
If dictatorial power corrupts absolutely, imagine what happens when a dictatorship tries to transition its way into democracy. Letting go is never easy, and expecting a despot to give up complete authoritarian control is an even greater challenge. This is essentially the backdrop of “Democrats,” a captivating documentary chronicling the corrupt political environment in Zimbabwe as its current leader, President Robert Mugabe — who has ruled over the country in some form or another since 1987 — attempts to cede control and open up the country to draft a new constitution. Of course, his decision to relinquish some power only comes in the wake of his 2008 re-election — one of the most hotly contested appointments in Africa in the last ten years, and his fifth consecutive and controversial win — which sparked international outrage.
With unique and unfiltered access to some top politicians, director Camilla Nielsson chronicles the process of creating a new constitutional democracy, giving the people a say in how they are governed, and laying the groundwork for the country’s future. In doing so, Nielsson focuses on two charming political leaders from rival sides. One is Paul Mangwana (quoted above), a prominent lawyer and Minister of Information stooge for ZANU–PF, Mugabe’s party, and the other is Douglas Mwonzora, the chief negotiator for MDC-T (Movement for Democratic Change — Tsvangirai). They are tasked to run COPAC Zimbabwe — the bipartisan constitutional committee with hopes of creating a stronger democratic structure to lead the country.
Heartbreakingly so, the COPAC effort is almost a farce from the start, and the sharpest political satires aren’t this biting. On top of widespread, sometimes embarrassing disorganization — which only works in favor of the side looking to thwart and sabotage them wherever they can — ZANU-PF’s conspiratorial tactics to disrupt and intimidate the process at every turn are deplorable and totally transparent. As both sides try to take hold and bring as much influence as possible from their respective parties, a stressed struggle of tug of war breaks out.
Two years behind schedule, and marred by controversy, the COPAC endeavor threatens to fall apart, and Nielsson’s film dutifully captures that anxiety. Shot over a three-year period, formally, “Democracy” has compelling energy to it as much of it is lensed in a run-and-gun, as-it-happens style that makes your stomach sink deeper as you watch the course of the negotiations head to their logical conclusion. It’s not quite a thriller, but it does possess a queasy tension that is extremely engrossing — credit should also go to composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen and editor Jeppe Bødskov for helping shape such a nerve-wracking film.
There’s human texture to the docu-study as well. Politics is a nasty game as it is, but in African nations, and within the scope of a former dictatorship, it can be downright deadly. Even though Mangwana comes off as a total strong-arming flunky and filibustering sleaze ball, albeit an affable one, “Democrats” has empathy for his position as messenger of the tyrants. Under great pressure from his superiors, at one point, when a proposed provision in the constitution decrees that no president will rule for more than five years — a condition that would effectively push Mugabe out of office — Mangwana’s party becomes incensed by this potential stipulation. The salacious press has a field day — suggesting Mangwana is conspiring to create a coup — and the political lackey’s life becomes endangered. In fact, when the more sympathetic Mwonzora and the MDC side ultimately drop the five-year-term proviso, it’s apparent they’re doing so, not in just a compromising effort to get the process moving, but with consideration for Mangwana’s life.
Strangely, and perhaps commendably, there’s a mutual respect and even camaraderie between the two men that even resembles a buddy comedy (though some viewers may be more empathetic to Mangwana than they should be). Though sworn political enemies, they must collaborate for the greater good and there’s a warmth between them that shows when their apprehensive alliance is not warring and at odds.
If you think the system is broken at home, all you need to do is watch “Democrats” to be a bit more grateful for what you have. And if politics already seems like a soul-crushing, horse-trading surrender of principals and compromise that has defeated the most idealistic spirits, one would excuse any feelings of frustration and hopelessness after watching Nielsson’s film.
With so much pervasive venality, the procedure of creating a democratic establishment for the people and by the people is almost cartoonishly perverted throughout. But as much as she captures shameful schemes — at one point Mwonzora is arrested on ridiculously trumped up charges just to stack the deck and exclude him from the COPAC progression — it should be said, Nielsson’s film is far less interested in painting good/bad dynamics as it is capturing the challenges of producing change within embattled and crooked political conditions. There’s certainly a futility to it all, and while her view is analytical and dualistic, there’s a tacit empathy for the struggle to secure democracy within a institutionally prejudiced regime.
In the end, Nielsson’s documentary portrait is a tragic look at the broken political process in Zimbabwe, but much like “(T)error,” another excellent Tribeca documentary, the filmmaker takes a corresponding view of the biased political efforts from both an absorbing human and procedural perspective. [B+]