Director: Camilla Nielsson
Out of 5: 4.5
The cultural and political wars in the United States have become so hectic that we Americans can quickly forget how easy we have it. The new documentary Democrats is not about the more liberal of the two parties in America’s democracy; it’s about people for whom the existence of democracy itself is a political issue to debate, and who treat the formation of a democratic system as a nuts-and-bolts policy position. Imagine your favorite episode of The West Wing, then imagine that the existence of a free society hangs in the balance; that will come close to the experience of watching Democrats.
The nation of Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980 under Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, and just seven years later Mugabe had assumed the role of President in a semi-dictatorial one-party state. In 2008, widespread protests around disputed election results threw the country into chaos, and Mugabe agreed to the drafting of a new constitution. Democrats follows the two men tasked with making that constitution into a reality: representing Mugabe and the ruling ZANU party, Paul Mangwana; representing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, Douglas Mwonzora.
From the very beginning of the film, the access that director Camilla Nielsson had and the things that people are willing to say in front of her camera are surprising. Mangwana especially has a shockingly free tongue, denigrating a free voting process and free speech as “useless weapons” in the battle for the new Zimbabwe, but he’s not the only one. The camera is there when ZANU representatives agree to “use” veterans of the Zimbabwean army to spread their talking points, it’s there as those talking points come verbatim out of the mouths of citizens during public meetings, and it’s there when armed men threaten to remove Mwonzora’s representatives from polling places.
That level of access is key because the future of the country is at stake. American politics often feature one candidate accusing an opponent of trying to destroy the country, but in this case it’s literally true: Mugabe’s government has become a cult of personality by this time, so writing a new constitution which could pave the way for a new president is literally destroying the nation which once was. The camera captures all of the emotions that result: not only the idealistic hope for freedom that the MDC represents, but also the staunch defense against that destruction that ZANU supporters want to mount. It’s never as simple as the ZANU men coming off as armed fascists (although sometimes they do), as there are also ZANU supporters who appear as patriots in defense of their history and their country. Mugabe has his share of believers, and no one wants to see his or her idol knocked down.
With all of that in the balance, the most West Wing-like part of the film is the way it can center on the minutiae of the drafting process. When a story emerges that several public meetings were disrupted by armed ZANU members, for example, the meeting between Mangwana and Mwonzora is devoted completely to an argument about the meaning of the word “volatile.” In time the film takes the tone of a race against the clock, as each of these battles over tiny details becomes a stalling tactic on Mangwana’s part, a way to create so much hassle that average Zimbabweans become more likely to throw up their hands and resign themselves to being stuck with Mugabe.
The most impressive aspect of Democrats is that there are so many documentarians in the world today who simply could not make it. Michael Moore’s snarky advocacy and occasionally confrontational style has its place, but that place is probably not in a country where international journalists are arrested without charge. Alex Gibney’s fast-moving documentary machine could not churn this film out; its production was a labor of love for almost seven years. The same goes for the whole slew of advocacy documentaries that will share your Netflix screen alongside Democrats; those films may be speaking truth to power, but it’s easy to summon righteous fury while under the protection of the First Amendment. Nielsson was required to walk the finest of fine lines between questioning ZANU and enraging them, for months, with precious few legal protections. The tense political situation in Zimbabwe demands a heart as steady as the hand which holds the camera, and Nielsson displays an ample amount of that.
Given that the general opinion of democracy around the world is as an absolute good, Nielsson is to be commended for how even-handed Democrats turns out to be. Democracy is ultimately about the people, all the people, and the film never loses track of that. ZANU voters are not entirely people who are doing well under Mugabe and thirst to keep it that way. Some are people who are voting for the bloc they believe in, and Mwonzora cannot simply dismiss them out of hand. He must negotiate with them, hear their arguments, decide when to compromise with them and when to stand his ground. The wrangling and compromising that took place in Zimbabwe in 2008 is at the very essence of democracy, and learning that fact anew over the course of this film is exactly what makes it worth watching.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. Follow him on Twitter: @mm_young