Shaping Democracy in a Dictatorship

Democrats, written and directed and  by independent filmmaker Camilla Nielsson, won the award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April. Writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem gave Nielsson her award. This is Nielsson’s first feature length film.

Mwonzora & Mangwana Cinematographer: Henrik Bohn Ipsen. Photograph courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Mwonzora & Mangwana Cinematographer: Henrik Bohn Ipsen. Photograph courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

The plight of Zimbabweans living under a ruthless dictator is nothing new to readers of The WIP. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis in the run up to the 2008 election, the election violence, and the time period of Nielsson’s film was covered extensively by WIP Contributors Constance Manika, Lelety Mabasa, and Grace Kwinjeh.

In 2008, Robert Mugabe, head of the ZANU-PF party and Zimbabwe’s only president since the country’s independence from colonial rule in 1980, was accused of stealing the election from his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Responding to pressure from the international community, a compromise was agreed to and the two men accepted a power sharing arrangement. President Mugabe also agreed to draft a democratic constitution.

Two men, Paul Mangwana from the ZANU-PF party and Douglas Mwonzora from the MDC are put in charge of the drafting committee. Both men differ in temperament and agendas but share a passion for a new democratic constitution.

Director: Camilla Nielsson. Photograph courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Director: Camilla Nielsson. Photograph courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

For three years, Nielsson is “a fly on the wall” covering the progress of the developing constitution. Her camera follows Mangwana and Mwonzora both at meetings together and in individual interviews. In addition, she covers town meetings attended by carefully rehearsed citizens expressing views supportive to the ZANU-PF party. Sometimes these meetings erupt into riots between the two party adherents.

Mainly, Democrats records the ups and downs of the constitution drafting process and follows the conflicts and fallouts between Mangwana and Mwonzora as the project falls seriously behind schedule. At one point Mwonzora is thrown in jail by Mugabe’s secret police; at another Mangwana’s life is threatened as he is labeled a traitor by the ZANU- PF party. Nielsson manages to keep the cameras rolling throughout the complex process of shaping democracy in a dictatorship.

What makes Democrats so amazing is the director’s extraordinary behind the scene access to Mangwana and Mwonzora in such a tightly censored dictatorship and her seamless cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.

In the end, both Mwonzora and Mangwana develop a greater understanding and respect for each other and, despite all the diversionary tactics of the Mugabe government, finish and sign a newly written constitution.  Post filming, Mugabe wins another election in 2013 ignoring the provisions of the new constitution.  He is now 91-years-old and is contemplating placing his much hated younger wife into power. The road to Zimbabwe’s democracy is difficult.  Almost two hours long, Democrats is worth your attention.

photoAbout the Author: Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation. She reviews films at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival for The WIP.

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