All you need to know about the distribution of power in Zimbabwe is plastered on the faces of two rival politicians. The first wears a permanently beaming smile. His counterpart is pensive, often worried. No prizes for guessing who represents Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party. Camilla Nielsson’s compelling film, aided by an unobtrusive camera and astonishing access, tracks the torturous process to construct the country’s constitution with impressive cogency.
After one rigged election too many, international pressure forced Mugabe to share power with Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party on an interim basis until a proper constitution was developed. To oversee this project, each party appointed one of their own. From Mugabe’s side Paul Mangwana, a genial bulldozer delivering his writ with misleading bluster; for MDC, Douglas Mwonzora, a softly spoken, determined lawyer. Democrats follows them over three years as they walk a tightrope of political pressure to achieve the impossible.
Part political procedural, part thriller, Mugabe’s corrupt and brutal regime reveals itself at every turn. The man himself makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the process. His speech at the project launch mocks the opposition; his closing one targets the two men who overcame so much to deliver a document acceptable to both sides. In between, Nielsson rides along as Mangwana and Mwonzora embark on a nationwide tour to seek views from the public, fall out during the lengthy drafting stage, and eventually arrive with a finished text. Along the way, they face countless obstacles including death threats for Mangwana and false arrest and imprisonment for Mwonzora.
With seemingly unlimited access, the film spends time with both men separately at the start. Here we see Mangwana bussing in people to rig meetings in his favour and bullying journalists, while Mwonzora is chased away by the police and constantly left playing catch-up against his opponents’ dirty tricks. It’s a fascinating insight into politics in Zimbabwe, the different levels of patronage and fear emerging gradually through a series of conversations. As the film wears on, the two spend an increasing amount of time locked together in rooms arguing over the text line by line. It’s here the repression steps up a gear as Mwonzora is suddenly arrested and Mangwana comes under fire from his own side for not preventing a particularly controversial clause from making it into the draft.
Nielsson’s big success is her refusal to allow the two principal characters to stay as narrowly defined opponents. Over the course of Democrats they both grow, seized by the triumphs and challenges of their task. Mwonzora, an embattled idealist, allows himself to believe that his dreams will one day happen. He’s the emotional heart, the camera lingering on his face in the quieter moments. Mangwana is on a different journey as he gets a little taste of Mugabe’s medicine when Zanu-PF turn on him. Suddenly journalists are no longer kowtowing and he finds his life threatened. Even his cheery demeanour disappears for a while.
That they achieve their Sisyphean task is quite incredible, though it’s a deeply qualified happy ending. They prove common ground can be found while Mugabe’s casual dismissal and subsequent decision to ride roughshod over the protections in the constitution demonstrate Zimbabwe has a long way to go. Democrats provides the inside track on the political process in the country while offering a cutting critique of the environment everyone is forced to operate in. Accessible, engaging and informative, this is documentary making as it should be.
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