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New Documentary 'Democrats' Shows Us What Zimbabwean Democracy Looks Like

We spoke to director Camilla Nielsson, whose new prize-winning documentary 'Democrats' is a riveting and startlingly intimate look into the ongoing crisis of Zimbabwean democracy.

Brandon Harris

Brandon Harris

Douglas Mwonzora and Paul Mangwana in 'Democrats' (2014), directed by Camilla Nielsson

The 14th annual Tribeca Film Festival held its award ceremony on Thursday, and Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson took home the grand jury prize in the World Documentary Competition for her film Democrats. A riveting look at the process through which Zimbabwe, still ruled by longtime dictator President Robert Mugabe, wrote its first constitution in the wake of a contested and corrupt 2008 "election," Democrats deftly shows the inter workings of a democracy in which intimidation and authoritarianism hang over public constitutional hearings and backroom wheeling and dealing. "Democracies in Africa are a difficult proposition, because always the opposition will want more than it deserves," Mugabe observes with a sinister smile on his face during an early portion of the film. Nielsson's documentary takes us inside the lives and tactics of the two men charged with hammering out the differences between two major Zimbabwean parties after Mugabe is forced by public outcry to produce a controlling political document for the former Rhodesia.

Paul Mangwana of Mugabe's ZANU-PF, genial and bucktoothed, does his best to seem trustworthy, trying to put a bright public face on a regime that is still known for "disappearing" people it deems disobedient. Meanwhile, his counterpart Douglas Mwonzora of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) endures harassments and trumped-up criminal charges from the sitting government as he attempts to galvanize his more urbane, liberal supporters during years of constitutional hearings and the drafting process into something resembling representational government. The two men, inherently distrustful of one another, possess a genuine chemistry, however—one that becomes crucial when rumors circulate that Mangwana is advocating for a constitutional structure that could make him the next man to disappear or suffer a mysterious car accident.

The miracle of Nielsson's film, besides the startlingly intimate firsthand access she received from both sides in what has become a frequently bloody political feud between Mugabe's party and that of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, is that she gets these political actors to let their guards down in the midst of the historically charged series of encounters. VICE caught up with Nielsson over the phone following her film's victory for a wide-ranging conversation about the difficulties of capturing such a high-stakes series of political maneuvers, the ongoing crisis of Zimbabwean democracy, and the ways in which white privilege provided the opportunity for her to observe this black political struggle with such immediacy.

VICE: What pushed you to make this film? Has Zimbabwe been a longstanding interest of yours as a citizen?
Camilla Nielsson: The project idea came to me from a Danish journalist who lived in Zimbabwe for many years. He wanted to write a book, and then he got the idea to make a film. He pitched the idea to the production company that I was working for at the time. My history with making films is that I'm an anthropologist and I've made films in many foreign countries. In fact I haven't made a film in my own country. So he proposed that I make the film and I thought this sounded like the most boring idea on paper, at least for a movie. A film about the constitution-making process in a dictatorship that's the most unlikely place on earth to institute a democracy while the dictator is still alive and all the anti-democratic sources were still there.

But I agreed to go on a research trip and I met first Mwonzora and then I met Mangwana. And when I met Mangwana I realized that, although I wasn't too interested in the constitution-making process itself, he was an interesting person. He had an interesting project being the guy in the middle, still sort of part of the regime, but having to push a democratic agenda that his leader didn't want. So I thought that was sort of a hot place. And when I met the two of them and saw them together, I thought, This is not going to be a film about a constitution-making process. This will be more like a buddy movie, a relationship film, a film about two men in a relationship. How will that end? And then I thought that might be quite interesting in terms of trying to make, because it is an important subject. I've never seen a film about a constitution-making process. And I doubt that my government, if we were to rewrite our constitution, would allow me in with a camera to film those negotiations.

When I was arrested, I spoke to one of the opposition's security people to see if it was still safe to be in the country. And he said, 'Because you went around in Zimbabwe so open with a big white cameraman and a big boom stick and doing everything on the spot observationally, everybody knows you now. You're the only white film crew that people have seen working the way you do.'

The access seems absolutely stunning in that you had that ability to be behind closed doors in so many tense and real history-making moments.
Exactly.

I can only imagine that you found certain individuals in many of those circumstances very uncomfortable with your presence, yes?
Of course. I mean, to get the permissions to make the film, we spent about a year on the ground in Zimbabwe running between ministries trying to convince them. And the opposition was very eager to have us, but the other guys were not. But in the end, they miraculously agreed. And we signed a phonebook-thick pile of papers.

And we were, of course, very happy about that. And yet that, for us, was not even halfway through the process. I mean, we had the official permits, but the idea of making an observational film in a dictatorship where there's no free media was sort of an absurd idea in itself. It was a bit of a circus. And we had to kick doors in every day. I have to credit, also, the people. They understood the project that I wanted to do, that I was an anthropologist collecting the material about this historical process, telling their story. This would not be a white colonial gaze, a critical journalist who just wanted to sort of tell another piece-of-shit story about their dictator. They became my ambassador and the film's ambassador. And they started opening the doors for me. In particular Mangwana, of course being part of the regime, helped me get there. I thought he was very brave to trust me and I'm really glad that he did. And our relationship is a very special one also. You know, I will admit we're very unlikely friends, the two of us, but there was something unexplainable that we had. And I think that's what it's about: It's really much more than the permits or anything else. The trust that he had in me and I had in him. And I credit him for that.

Paul Mangwana in 'Democrats' (2015)

Was it difficult in your editing process to contextualize the actual political differences between the MDC and ZANU-PF? You talk about not being interested in making a movie about the constitutional process.
Well, the content of the constitution I felt was too technical for a documentary film. Like you go to the dentist and there's certain lingo and that 's why there's no material in the film about, you know, the actual content. The legal language doesn't really translate into film.

Did you feel that Mangwana was in physical danger while he was in your presence?
Oh, for sure.

And did that danger extend out to your own physical wellbeing and that of your crew?
Yes, of course. Once your call is sent in Zimbabwe, basically you're a target. I mean, what happens in Zimbabwe is that usually people often disappear. That would never happen to a man like Mangwana, the former minister—he's a public figure. But he could have a car accident, which is what usually happens in Zimbabwe when they want to get rid of people. And so in those months of filming I had tried to talk driving with him. Usually, when we moved from one location to the other, I would go in one of their cars and spend time talking to them. They were getting interesting phone calls, something would always happen. It gave me information about what was about to happen during the day.

And then for a couple of months, I avoided driving with him at all. I was worried that something would happen. Of course everybody cared for Mangwana, we didn't want anybody to lose anyone's life. So that's why the negotiations were all moved to a secret location. That sort of pink castle-like resort that we go to, to negotiate that particular part, about 600 kilometers out of Harare—nobody knew we were there. And for us, that's when I felt this power that was really extraordinary. Me and the foreign crew were doing a mix of things to tell the story of this negotiation. And we were basically the only ones in the world to get to see it unfold, what was going on.

Do you think there's any way that you would've been given that kind of access had you been a Zimbabwean crew or an African crew?
No, never, never, never. That debate came up many times. I mean, the people that you're talking about before didn't want them there.

Being white and European allowed for a certain kind of access that the various parties involved here were perhaps more comfortable with.
Yeah, you're right. Everybody in Zimbabwe, because of the polarized political situation, is political, either one side or the other. But we had access to both sides of the negotiating table. That fact was extraordinary because we had the point of view from both men. We filmed inside of the MDC's headquarters.

Camilla Nielsson in 'Democrats' (2015)

And I also think that a British person or an American person or people who came from a country that had a colonial history could also probably never make this film. I think our loophole besides the fact that Mangwana and I had the relationship that we had is that the Danes have quite a good reputation in Zimbabwe, because Danes were very active in supporting the liberation struggle against the Rhodesians.

Mugabe has always been very fond of the Danes and Mangwana as well. They know the stories that Danes helped them out financially. And so I heard many times—when they were trying to take me out of something or trying to limit our access—that Mangwana would sort of promote our presence by saying, "No, she's a Dane. She's not like from the west, not exactly like a black woman and a white woman—she's a Dane." And then he would tell the stories about how the Danes were active in the liberation struggle and have been a big help in telling people, oh, all right, she's cool." And this is everything in a dictatorship. As soon as you sort of caught the ball, you were cool. Then the doors are open in a completely different way than they would be in Denmark or in the States. There I think I would have to keep pushing for access. [But in Zimbabwe] once you're in, you're in.

Mangwana said, 'Look, I went through the film, scene by scene in my head for the last two nights. I haven't been able to sleep, but my conclusion is... I think you 're telling the truth.'

One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is to watch the sort of machinery of totalitarian governance in action. I'm speaking specifically about the hearings process before the actual constitutional drafting process began, where ZANU-PF is ostensibly bussing members of their own party to places where they don 't live. And the training and almost-mind control that seems to exist in terms of their ability to get people in these rural meetings to say the same exact thing that supports Mugabe's position. Did you, in the process of making this film, encounter direct evidence of that kind of thing going on that you didn't include or that wasn't part of your narrative? Or were there other aspects of living in that kind of environment that you captured but ultimately didn't fit into the film that you made?
There were some things that we felt were too sensitive to include. Both because there were some things said in the meetings like topics that were highly critical of Mugabe. There was an instance where a pregnant woman got up and said, "This is all a sham. I mean, what is this exercise all about?" She was very critical of Mugabe and it could've been a very beautiful contribution to the film. But I felt for her safety, and I didn't want to include it. There are many things that I decided not to include. I had to censor myself a bit as the director to keep everybody safe.

Because the truth is that, when we filmed this movie, nobody thought that Mugabe would be in power when the process was over. The national momentum was that this was Mugabe's last period ruling. And so people felt that and they knew that the moment would come out as soon as the process finished. So I think it was a shock to everybody, including me, when Mugabe stole the election in 2013 and remained in power. I knew that we sat on a bomb. And I was, at some point, unsure if we could even release the film, because it is very controversial, the things that have been said. But before we released the film, we invited Mangwana and Mwonzora to Copenhagen for a week. And they saw the film and discussed the scenes and talked about the sensitive issues. And I said to them that if there were things that they felt would clearly jeopardize their safety, I think we should take it out. I didn't want to carry the ethical responsibility of their future.

And we gave them some days to think. Mwonzora was immediately approving of the movie. He said, "I've been arrested 27, 28 times, and I fear the 29th time, because of this, what I do. And I'm happy with it." Mangwana needed a few days to think and came back to me and said, "Look, I went through the film, scene by scene in my head for the last two nights. I haven't been able to sleep, but my conclusion is..." and he had a long sort of break. He didn't say anything. And I thought, Oh my God, he's going to say, 'You can't release the movie.' "I think you're telling the truth." And that's how it was.

Do you think that there's increasing disillusionment now in the wake of Mugabe's continued stronghold on power amongst people in the movement for democratic change?
You know, the funny thing is, I think their position is closer to getting in power than they ever were, because there are so few real ZANU supporters left in the country. Ten years back there were still quite a number of people who supported Mugabe who were alive when he was the liberation hero. And people would never stop looking at him as the liberation hero. I think these people are increasingly aged. And I think the younger generation is the way that can change. So I think, politically, that the support of the opposition has never been bigger. But I think they all took for granted that they would win the 2013 election. And then that didn't happen. They became so disillusioned that they started to fight amongst themselves. And suddenly some of the best and most notable politicians from the opposition were in two different camps.

So Mugabe had a perfect divide-and-rule situation from that election. And I'd say that the shock of having lost the election, because this was not the first election that Tsvangirailost to Mugabe, you know, unfairly. I think it was the third or the fourth, maybe, that he lost unfairly. And I think there's a limit to how much you can take as an individual. I think it was a total bomb and a total shock. And they were paralyzed for months. And now they're in two [groups], and there's no united opposition. Without a united opposition, Mugabe is in an easy place. So I don't think anybody can speculate what happens in Zimbabwe in the coming years. I think anybody who thinks they know exactly what is going to happen in Zimbabwe, doesn't know very much.

The other question is whether a guy like Mangwana after three or four presidential election losses has the stamina to do a fifth one. I mean, is he really the right candidate? I wonder about this. I would have a hope that someone like Mwonzora would be able to run. I think he would make an excellent president.

Mwonzora's been been accused 28 times. He's been acquitted each time. He is now the most arrested politician in Zimbabwean political history.

How do you think that will affect their own standing in Zimbabwean politics, now that the film is part of the public record?
I think obviously Mwonzora is the one who is going to benefit most politically from this film. Although I have to say that, you know, when audiences have seen this film, their immediate emotional response is always when they get to Mangwana. Like many people, they have a new hero today: His name is Mangwana. The response to his character in his situation is much stronger from audiences who see the film outside of Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, he will be seen as an even bigger traitor. But I think he will also benefit, because a lot of people in Zimbabwe do not like Mugabe anymore. And Mangwana's been such a brave pioneer who has been sort of pushing a progressive agenda before anyone else. So I think over time, historically, down the line, Mangwana will be remembered. He will have a legacy as a guy who sort of took off the uniform before anyone else.

You get me? And I think his place in history will be ensured by this film, and I think he knows that. But until Mugabe's gone, there will be a period where he will be seen as what they already think—as a traitor. His situation was that when he finished writing the constitution, he wasn't even elected to parliament—in the next election there were both the parliament and the presidential elections. And his own party put another candidate in his constituency and bankrolled him with a lot of money. And basically Mangwana lost the primary election in his own constituency. Although he's hugely popular, he was less hugely popular than the other candidate. And that was their way of giving him the boot.

Mwonzora had sort of the opposite journey after the constitution process. He was the spokesperson for the MDC for the democratic change. He's now the secretary general of the parliament. So he's second in line after Tsvangirai. And that leads you to think his ambition is on another level. That's all I would say.

Douglas Mwonzora in 'Democrats' (2015)

What became of the criminal charges against him that happened, you know, late in the film? They aren't ever resolved before the film ends, correct?
No, they're not. They put them on hold so that the constitution can be restored. Actually, not more than two or three weeks ago, he was finally acquitted again of those claims. He's been accused 28 times, he's been acquitted each time. And they have nothing on him. But it takes his time; it distracts his focus. He is now the most arrested politician in Zimbabwean political history. That also for me is a signifier of his relevance, of his power, of his potential: That the regime spends so much time keeping him passive or inactive.

We set up a monitor in the local café and invited all the notorieties, all the ambassadors, the donors, the characters in the film, their families, the state, the private media. Even the secret police were there. And on February 6, we had a public screening of this film inside Harare, something completely unheard of.

You talked about the way in which normal citizens can be disappeared by ZANU-PF. And yet for these two men that kind of political violence is unimaginable.
Not for them, no. They're public figures. I spoke to a lot of people besides Mangwana and Mwonzora about issues related to their safety. And the one answer that I hadn't thought of myself, but which was repeated all the time including by Mangwana and Mwonzora themselves, is that this film in fact gives them protection through the publicity. I mean, this film is now all over the world. And if something happens to them, it's very obvious who did it and why. And I think that they are right.

I can give you a similar example. We were often worried about our safety. We were being followed; I was arrested when I was there; they hacked my phone. It was quite an intense filming environment. And, of course, we were almost beaten up a couple of times. When I was arrested, I spoke to one of the opposition's security people to sort of see if it was still safe to be in the country. And he said, "Because you went around in Zimbabwe so open with a big white cameraman and a big boom stick and doing everything on the spot observationally, everybody knows you now. You're the only white film crew that people have seen working the way you do."

I can tell you an anecdote. If we got to a press conference and the state press were there, they would just film us. They wouldn't film the press conference. The story would be that there had been two white people at the press conference talking about what the press conference was about. And they said the same thing to us. "You are now so public in Zimbabwe, it's going to be very hard to target you. And you are open about how you are making this project. If you had done this undercover with a small camera in secret, you may not have even gotten in and gotten to shoot anything that could have been a scenario."

Lastly, do you think you'll get to show the film in Zimbabwe?
We have shown the film in Zimbabwe.

You did? And what was the response? And what kind of audience was it?
We've shown it one time because for me it was important that it was shown locally before we started this whole sort of international festival tour. And because I was arrested on my final trip to Zimbabwe, I can't reenter the country. But we have a very brave Danish ambassador in Zimbabwe who suggested that he then host a screening. So we set up a monitor in the local café and invited all the notorieties, all the ambassadors, the donors, the characters in the film, their families, the state, the private media. Even the secret police were there. And on February 6, we had a public screening of this film inside Harare, which was something completely unheard of. We were expecting them to come and shut it down.

But they didn't. And I wasn't there. But I've been in some panels with Zimbabwean human-rights activists who've been joining me on this festival circuit. And they were there. And they talk about it as one of the most magical moments they remember. Like the fact that it was packed, standing room only. Four hundred people from both sides of the political divide came into that room, sat down together, had a glass of wine, watched a movie, stayed after, had a conversation, and left peacefully.

Of course we want the rest of the nation to see it also. But we were just kind of testing the waters. And the regime hasn't reacted to the film at all in its final treatment. So, so far, so good.

Brandon Harris is a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine. His directorial debut Redlegs has played over a dozen festivals worldwide and was a New York Times critic's pick upon its commercial release in May of 2012. Follow him on Twitter.