Review: Democrats (Nielsson, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Still from the movie Democrats

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society


Filmmaker Camilla Nielsson obtains an impressive level of access for her documentary Democrats, which portrays the crafting of Zimbabwe’s new constitution following the recent formation of a coalition government. The film, screening at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival, follows the two co-chairs of the constitution-making committee–men from bitterly opposed rival parties in a country frequently rocked by civil unrest–as they poll citizens for their input, wrangle over procedure, battle each other in the press, and finally assemble the document that is supposed to change Zimbabwe’s future.

In the years preceding the time of filming, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) party, following a bitterly contested election, agreed to share power with President and effective dictator Robert Mugabe (of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, party)–but under one condition: that a new constitution be written. In the ensuing coalition government, Tsvangirai became Prime Minister while Mugabe remained President. Both parties then sent representatives to co-chair the Constitution Select Committee, or COPAC, which was tasked with drafting the new constitution.

The resulting documentary is a rare look behind the headlines to (attempted) government-making in action. Serving MDC-T’s interests is Douglas Mwonzora, a poised, long-suffering activist lawyer, while Paul Mangwana, an official high in Mugabe’s circle, is chosen to represent ZANU-PF. Mangwana, especially, is shockingly candid in revealing his party’s tactics, which include busing in supporters and mobilizing allies to “educate” the masses. And what Mangwana does not admit, the film suggests: intimidation by the secret police, organized violence against MDC-T supporters–the usual litany of dictator offenses. Still, as his adversary Mwonzora readily acknowledges, Mangwana is not a bad man; he’s simply an instrument of his party. Part of what’s compelling about this film is watching Mangwana’s transformation from Mugabe’s stooge to…well, you’ll see. Suffice it to say that it’s gratifying to see what change can be wrought in a man by another’s patient example, quiet insistence, and not a small amount of grace.

Change in a country, however, is much more difficult to achieve, especially one with such a troubled past and present. What motivates the activist Mwonzora? When he talks to the camera, he can’t disguise the hope in his voice, but his hope is like a prayer–more desire than belief. Though this documentary does not explore Mangwana and Mwonzora’s lives outside their COPAC efforts, it cannot help but provide an intimate portrait of these two men–one whose life is his work, and one whose life depends on his work. It is this intertwining of the personal story and the national story that makes Democrats such a unique film and lends history a touch of humanity.

This documentary is also important in that it sheds much-needed light on the shady workings of a country known to many as simply another unstable dictatorship. It was international attention that forced Mugabe to (nominally) share power with Tsvangirai, and perhaps more international attention is needed to bring about the change that Mangwana and Mwonzora seek. To serve as one pair of eyes, buy your SFIFF tickets today for screenings on Saturday, May 2; Monday, May 4; and Wednesday, May 6.