Democracy comes to Zimbabwe by way of direct cinema in Democrats, Camilla Nielsson’s harrowing documentary covering the lead-up to the country’s 2013 presidential election, in which incumbent Robert Mugabe was re-elected for the fifth time, despite accusations of election fraud and intimidation tactics. The filmmaker is less interested in Mugabe’s case file than charting the efforts of the country’s oppositional group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with Morgan Tsvangirai as the party’s figurehead and anchored by co-chairs Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora, who become the film’s central subjects.
Though Mangwana and Mwonzora belong to the same movement, they’re constantly at odds over policy and specificities regarding Zimbabwe’s constitution, which they’ve been drafting for years. Nielsson often lets them speak separately from one another, driving their cars and pontificating about how the constitution’s slow development has been, to some extent, the other man’s fault. In a particularly heated meeting, Mangwana lashes out at Mwonzora, recently released from jail following what appears to have been an unlawful arrest, claiming he’s responsible for a recent clause that would equal a “political coup” against Mugabe. Mwonzora denies responsibility and says Mugabe had the clause instituted by his own delegates, who’ve been threatening to take over the drafting processes all along.
Nielsson weaves these complex and often outrageous political webs without artificially dramatizing the altercations. Mugabe’s corrupted efforts are evident through his lack of transparency as an elected political official and blatant disregard for due process as it pertains to citizen arrests. The film’s steading sense of injustice is so palpable that when Mwonzora exits prison claiming to have been denied water and food for three straight days, his statement’s veracity isn’t remotely in question. Both Mangwana and Mwonzora are less critical of individuals than the political circumstances, saying “evil system, evil men” in a way that recalls the famous phrase “evil mind, evil sword” from The Sword of Doom. In the case of Democrats, individual misdeeds aren’t the final enemy, but the byproduct of an unregulated regime.
During an early car ride to a reform meeting, Mangwana playfully boasts how “the game of politics is pretending,” a moment which Nielsson uses to segue into the film’s title card. The juxtaposition is peculiar; if corruption and democracy are united, then Zimbabwe’s policies and officials are simply switching out one bad deed for another. Neither subject makes such an explicit assertion, but some form of self-serving interest anchors all political engagements within the film. Though the Zimbabwe African National Union is denigrated for its refusal to “do what is popular” amongst the people, the MDC also seems uncertain as to what the population really wants. Democracy has not prevailed by the end of Democrats, but that fact is potentially less haunting than Mangwaba’s assertion that “To be a sellout in Zimbabwe is to be condemned to death.” Taken alongside his previous claim that “politics is pretending,” it seems no one should be left alive.