Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Democrats

The notion of a country still governed by a Politburo sounds ominously anachronistic, but such is very definitely the case in Zimbabwe. Deliberately following the old Soviet system, Robert Mugabe and his oligarchical socialist ZANU-PF party have maintained a stifling hold on power in the African nation, since 1980. The only hiccup in Mugabe’s dictatorship happened in 2008. Outraged by blatantly rigged elections, the international community forced Mugabe to form a coalition government with his chief opposition, the MDC-T. Even though Mugabe and his party clearly consider this a coalition in name only, they agree to participate in the drafting of a new constitution. Camilla Nielsson documents the fraught negotiations of the rival co-chairs in Democrats, which screens today as the Best Documentary Feature Award winner at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Paul Mangwana is the ZANU-PF co-chair, who expects to win over the opposition with a smile and a handshake. After all, he has always gotten his way through charm before. Of course, being an influential member of the ruling party hasn’t hurt either. In contrast, Douglas Mwonzora is a human rights lawyer who has already seen the insides of Zimbabwe’s most appalling prisons. In fact, he will find himself back behind bars on trumped up charges during crucial stages of the drafting process.

For obvious reasons, the two appointees begin their co-chairmanships very wary of each other. Nonetheless, familiarity slowly builds camaraderie. Eventually, they start to agree on ostensibly nonpartisan building blocks. Unfortunately for Mangwana, when a misunderstanding angers his ZANU-PF patrons, the respective co-chairs experience a drastic reversal of fortune. For a while, Mangwana was literally afraid for his life. Frankly, he probably still should be.

If you outlined the structure of Democrats, it would look like an inspiring story, in which former adversaries come together to craft an agreement for the national good. However, the film’s last fifteen minutes completely undercut any possible uplift. It is made abundantly clear to both Mangwana and the audience constitutional democracy requires more than just a paper constitution. If the powers that be refuse to accept legal curbs on their powers than where are you? Possibly Zimbabwe.

Yes, Democrats gives the audience a bitter pill to swallow, but there is something both chilling and electrifying about Nielsson’s truth telling. Through her direct style of filmmaking, we see Mugabe’s evil nature for what it is, because he never hides it. There are no voiceovers or academic commentators in the film, but Nielsson and editor Jeppe Bødskov shape it into a tight, tense, easily-followed narrative. There is no sitting around waiting for things to happen and the stakes steadily rise throughout.

Somehow Nielsson and cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen were unobtrusive enough to film some bombshell moments. This is definitely political sausage-making, but with life-and-death consequences. Don’t forget, Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade was trained in North Korea. There is very little of that sort of background in Nielsson’s doc, but it would be inconsistent with its conscientiously observational approach. Recommended for viewers concerned with human rights (and the lack thereof on the African continent), Democrats screens twice today (4/26), as an award winner at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.