Democrats: Party Politics, Litigation, and the Everyday Heroism Behind the Zimbabwean Constitution

Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora, subjects of Camilla Nielsson’s DEMOCRATS. Photo courtesy of Upfront Films.

Democrats
Directed by Camilla Nielsson
Opens November 18 at Film Forum

There are real lives at stake in Democrats, but the gravity of this documentary is borne in on the audience gradually, almost imperceptibly. Seemingly mundane questions of bureaucracy build to a dramatic peak that towers above the magic mountains of most recent features, in which cities are amusingly obliterated while characters set fire to one another’s capes. Harare is not destroyed in Democrats. It appears, instead, as an orderly system of roads, traffic lights, political meetings and drab conference rooms—and as a maze the film’s two heroes, Douglas Mwonzora and Paul Mangwana, try to navigate. This account of their efforts shapes up to be both a heroic and an artful film, subtle and extremely affecting—proof that it doesn’t take Fincher plus Sorkin to make litigation riveting. Here it took only the director, Camilla Nielsson; a cameraman, Henrik Bohn Ipsen; an editor, Jeppe Bødskov; and thirteen trips to Zimbabwe, over the course of three years, during which the nation’s first post-independence constitution was being drafted.

Robert Mugabe, leader of the Zanu-PF party, has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, and when he speaks, in his brief appearances here, we hear all the imperiousness of a 30-odd year reign. His audience laughs at the menacing jokes, because they must. But Nielsson’s focus isn’t Mugabe or opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, but Mwonzora, an opposition-party lawyer, and Mangwana, a career Zanu-PF politician, both heading up the canvassing and drafting process. A series of drives, often shot from the backseat of Mwonzora’s and Mangwana’s cars, and shots of rural party meetings in which old men in suits and women in long dresses sit on the ground and obey instructions, acquire great weight as the meetings are revealed as a sort of show, put on under the threat of Zanu-PF violence.

Constitutionally calm, helplessly rational, the owl-faced Mwonzora tries to prove that the results obtained thusly are inadmissible—people are too afraid to speak—while Mangwana, jovial, glad-handling, only laughs and laughs. The genius of the film is to drum up concern and resentment, respectively, for these two, and then to use the constant threat of violence to confuse and re-direct our sentiments; Mwonzora’s cannier and sturdier than he appears, and even Mangwana isn’t invincible. As superhero movies like to remind us, the hero and the villain need each other. In reality, there’s nothing so simple about their struggle, and its outcome reverberates throughout the land.

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