Director Camilla Nielsson’s gripping observational documentary Democrats is a timely reminder, given Zimbabwe has been out of the headlines recently, of the turmoil that has gripped the country in recent years as it’s ageing dictator Robert Mugabe has faced growing opposition to his brutal reign. Shot over the course of more than three years following the disputed 2008 elections in the country, director Nielsson gained exclusive access to the inner circles of politics in Robert Mugabe’s troubled nation and was allowed to follow two political opponents from both the long-time ruling party ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, as they were assigned the absurdly huge task of writing a new constitution for the country.
How this bizarre situation came about is swiftly established in the film’s opening minutes.Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe as president since 1980, growing more eccentric and dictatorial with each passing year, until the western media were painting him as the Saddam Hussein of Africa. During the tumultuous 2008 election, the MDC-T Party under Morgan Tsvangirai finally seemed set for election victory despite a violent crackdown by Mugabe’s militia, army and police forces. But an uneasy stalemate occurred instead, with Mugabe forced to share power with Tsvangirai in a coalition; with the ageing tyrant left as president and Tsvangirai his new prime minister. There was one condition to the MDCT agreeing to this— a new democratic constitution would have to be written by two men, each being from the opposing party. Nielsson’s camera team follows those two chosen men over several years as they grind out this impossible task.
The two men make for a fascinating set of contrasts. Democrat party member Mwonzora is a human rights lawyer and a member of parliament for the opposition party. He is amazingly polite no matter what is thrown at him, but understandably seems wary of how much influence he really has. Mangwana is a prominent lawyer who has served many years as a minister in Mugabe’s government. He is a member of the ruling ZANU PF party, introduced to us as jovial and laid back, possibly as he is used to the comfort of years of practicing mouthing government lines and knowing he is on the side with all the guns. When challenged, he has no problem switching to an icily commanding demeanour, and that wide grin vanishes.
The two lawyers head up the constitutional committee – COPAC- tasked with writing Zimbabwe’s new constitution. We soon see the scale of the challenge Mwonzora is facing. At a ceremony to mark the launch of the constitutional outreach programme, he and party leader Tsvangirai have to endure open mockery from Mugabe, who mouths platitudes about respecting the will of the people as a stony faced Tsvangirai looks on, the president laughing; “but I can’t refuse to rule!”
Cynicism is the order of the day from the MDC-T, who nevertheless clearly feel have to take this chance even if it is a poisoned chalice. But an air of pretence and fear hangs in the air around this process. As one of Mwonzora’s assistant groans, “We are a nation of great pretenders…There is terror everywhere”. As two lawyers and their teams head out to public gatherings, where the concept is that consultations with small groups in villages and city suburbs across the regions will help guide the constitution, it becomes even more clear just how entrenched and reactionary the Zanu PF is.
The process is hampered by intimidation and sabotage. In one scene, Mangwana is seen being taken aside by an assistant who, laughing, relates to him how so many of these meetings are being overseen by ZANU PF war veterans who open the sessions with implicit warnings of the risks of resisting Mugabe’s authority. Mwonzora despairs at the drilled answers he gets from members of the crowds. In a press conference, the COPAC are embarrassed by journalists who point out only 5 people at one meeting of 1200 were brave enough to speak out. Even in areas where the MDC should have a strong shown, ZANU PF supporters are being bussed in. Fear casts a long shadow over the Zimbabwean people, which makes the sturdy Mwonzora and his team seem all the more tragically heroic.
Though Mwonzora is inevitably the figure that viewers will empathise with, as the film progresses Mangana is shown to be a far more complex figure than first appeared. Violence disrupts so many public consultations that the process is suspended at one point. The background danger Mwonzora resignedly acknowledged in asides is made suddenly concrete when he is suddenly arrested for alleged offences dated back to 2003. Things get so mired down that even the affable Magwana starts to get irate and unguarded in his comments, wondering aloud while the camera is running if his employers even want this constitution.
Though Mangwna at times comes over as a figure craftily looking to neutralise Mwonzora with soothing words whilst his ZANU PF paymasters disrupt the entire process, in private moments in front of the camera the ZANU PF lawyer is more thoughtful, acknowledging how unbalanced the power scales are and how difficult it is for a party that has been in office for 33 years to agree to change a system that has seemed to work so well for them. In a bizarre reverse, Mwonzora finds himself expressing sympathy for his opposite number as it becomes clear that Mangwana is being viewed with suspicion himself by his own party masters for his role in the constitutionally consultation, and risks being ostracized…or worse. These two men thus find themselves in the same boat
This was truly a historic moment in Zimbabwe’s history, and the access director Nielsson gained in order to explore it is impressive indeed; taking her cameras into tense committee meetings and rowdy public gatherings, and then following her main subjects into more private settings to catch them in unguarded moments. The subjects she chose to follow couldn’t have been more engaging, and they are an intriguing prism through which to watch this complicated situation unfold. At turns inspiring and troubling, Democrats is ultimately a fascinating study of the dangerous grassroots work that changing a harsh political system requires. It is an insightful look at recent Zimbabwean history, and a sobering reminder that, because outright victory is rarely possible for political movements, when the dust settles each side has to learn to live with their opponent.