President Review: Nelson Chamisa’s Campaign for Freedom

Doc observes the fight for democracy in Zimbabwe

7 mins read

(USA/Denmark/Norway/Zimbabwe, 120 min.)
Dir. Camilla Nielsson


The 30-year rule of former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is already being dubbed a failed dictatorship by many. Once a revolutionary who preached about breaking the oppressive shackles of white minority rule, Mugabe’s stranglehold on power was equally brutal and stifling. By the time he was ousted from his own party, Zimbabwe African Nation Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), in November 2017, his reign had been marked by a disastrous economy, food insecurity, a string of fraudulent elections, and violence towards those who dared to oppose him. The removal of Mugabe was seen as an opportunity for meaningful change. But as Camilla Nielsson’s stirring documentary President shows, just because the door to democracy is unlocked does not mean it will be easy to walk through.

With Mugabe’s successor and former Vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa declaring that Zimbabwe would have a “free and fair” election in 2018, the country faced one of its most important decisions, which could drastically reshape it for the first time in decades. Taking the audience through the winding road of the campaign trail, Nielsson’s film is a stunning examination of why democracies are important and extremely fragile to maintain.

Using a cinema verité approach, Nielsson observes the ins-and-outs of the election from the perspective of opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. At age 40, the charismatic activist and lawyer assumed the mantle of leader of the MDC Alliance party four months before the election when its former party head unexpectedly died of cancer. Despite his late start, Chamisa made up plenty of ground rather quickly and amassed a large following in the process. He inspired Zimbabweans all over with his speeches about economic reform and uprooting the weeds of corruption that had infested the soil of the country for decades.

Drawing comparisons to a young Nelson Mandela, Chamisa garnered grassroots support that outpaced the heavily funded campaign of his main rival, ZANU-PF’s Mnangagwa. However, as Nielsson’s camera captured, it did not take long for the white dress of democratic purity to get covered in mud. Questions about the integrity of the process began to arise when the newly created Zimbabwe Electoral Committee (ZEC), tasked by Mnangagwa to independently oversea the election, started producing ballots without consulting the MDC Alliance.

This proved to be the first of many challenges to the election process. Not only did ZEC ignore Chamisa’s request for answers regarding the ballots for weeks, but they also did not seem overly concerned with the fact that Mnangagwa’s campaign was violating election rules by giving away food to secure votes in impoverished regions. Pushing messages of hope and change up an increasingly one-sided hill, an infuriated Chamisa acknowledges to his team at one point that “we are fighting with people who are determined to frustrate us.”

What makes this political chess match riveting to observe, compared to other election related documentaries, is that the deceit is on display for all to see. It does not take long for ruthless tactics, such as sending the police and military to intimidate peaceful MDC Alliance supporters through violence, to surface. As Chamisa notes in the film, Mnangagwa served under Mugabe for years, so it is not surprising that he would take cues from the old ZANU-PF playbook. What is surprising, however, is the great lengths that many of the institutions go to undermine the society they are meant to uphold. It’s a point frequently emphasized when Nielsson’s lens zooms in on the faces of those politicians, members of ZEC, or other officials, propagating the numerous falsehoods. Their feeble poker faces give away their whole shameful hand. Even an international delegation of officials, which briefly arrives to vet that the election process is indeed a democratic one, finds acrobatic ways to avoid directly saying that the Zimbabwe Election Committee is not acting independently.

While this backhanded confirmation of dishonesty says just as much about the way international countries who have let decades of political corruption in Zimbabwe foster, it also hits to the core of Nielsson’s cinematic warning alarm. It is up to people, and not institutions, to continually fight to ensure that democracy is achieved and maintained. Merely claiming that something is democratic does not make it so. The events in the documentary may take place in Zimbabwe, but there are many parallels to what is currently occurring in many countries where democracy is being threatened.

The fact that President premiered at Sundance mere weeks after an angry mob of over 2000 Americans attempted to storm the U.S. Capitol, in hopes of overturning the 2020 election, feels like a bittersweet piece of serendipity. As democracies all over the world slowly erode via attacks on voting rights, the perpetuation of false narratives in the media, and abuse of their legal systems, Nielsson’s documentary shows that such tactics have been employed for years in Zimbabwe. While individuals like Chamisa continue to ride the raft of truth against an overpowering wave of corruption intent on seeing them drown, they must stay vigilant even if it means putting their own life on the line.

Chamisa’s determination and commitment to his people is one of the few rays of light in the dark cloud of corruption that hovers over Nielsson’s documentary. Considering the many hurdles thrown his way, President is a sobering and powerful reminder that democracies are tough to achieve, and even harder to maintain.

President will be released digitally via TIFF.net and other platforms beginning Feb. 18.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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