ZIMBABWE – Watching a film about drafting a constitution in an African country sounds about as fascinating as doing the family ironing.
That’s what Danish film director Camilla Nielsson thought when she was first asked to make a film on constitutional change in Zimbabwe. It took three approaches before she agreed.
Democrats, the one-hour and 40-minute film she and cameraman Henrik Ipsen “ making up the entire crew – completed after three years of relentless filming and editing, has been greeted by some of the most respected international critics with the kind of praise that is reserved for only a tiny number of cinematic gems.
A sample: the New York Times “Democrats is finally a film that deserves to be called necessary; Vanity Fair“Even the slyest political satire couldn’t outdo this riveting study of Zimbabwe’s troubled coalition government; The Village Voice – Democrats’ is as excellent a documentary about politics as you will ever see.
It is about two lawyers, each from one of Zimbabwe’s major political parties “ President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU(PF) and pro-democracy opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC “ who are joint chairmen of the national constitutional committee (COPAC) charged with producing a new constitution from 2010 to 2013, and their very different tactics for the very different result each one’s party wants.
Paul Mangwana, the ZANU(PF) representative, knows his job is to produce a document that will ensure the aged Mugabe’s rule without end, and to achieve it through political manipulation and fear. For the MDC’s Douglas Mwonzora, it is the entrenchment of democracy and justice through an inviolable system of checks and balances between the executive, the judiciary and parliament.
On a deeper level, the film is a minutely observed study of the politics of terror, and how it confounds every attempt to build a society based on democracy, fairness and decency. During the film, Earnest, Mwonzora’s aide, tells the camera. The system has been instilling fear in people for a very long time. On the face of it, everything seems normal. But they’re not normal. There is terror everywhere. Everywhere you are, you are afraid.
For a large part of the three years it took for the constitution to be produced, Nielsson and Ibsen glued themselves to the two politicians, in their cars, at meetings in poor villages, in luxury hotels. Ibsen’s camera rolled almost non-stop and with radio microphones on their collars or through a large boom mike, Nielsson scarcely missed a word of their exchanges. They had 400 hours of speech to edit down to 90 minutes.
COPAC’s first phase is to hold meetings all over the countryside to give Zimbabweans an opportunity to state what they want in a constitution. Mangwana’s tactics are tried- and-tested-ZANU(PF) total control. The outreach meetings are first held in the poor, oppressed countryside. Mangwana first briefs the leadership of the country’s malevolent militia of war veterans. Your first role is to educate the masses. You must also mobilise the masses to attend meetings, he tells them.
They know what he means. The night before each meeting, war veterans and secret police arrive at the villages and drill the local people again and again on what to say. The COPAC officials come to record the responses. One by one each person in the village gives the identical response. The president must choose the judges, or There must be no limit to the terms of office that the president can have or Only president Mugabe can rule this country. His first meeting H H
I should commend them for being very disciplined, Mwonzora observes wryly afterwards.
The next phase is in urban areas. ZANU(PF) uses a different strategy because Zimbabwe’s towns and cities are strongly pro-MDC and certain to back a national law that will impose strict limits on Mugabe, if not to make sure he leaves office immediately after 32 years in power.
So before each meeting a ZANU(PF) crowd is bussed in, usually drunk, armed with weapons like pickaxe handles, and violent. The process in Harare is wrecked. At one meeting attended by Mangwana, the child of an MDC official is killed. Mangwana himself has a rock thrown at him and his party louts denounce him as a sellout. In Zimbabwe, it is an accusation that frequently results in bloodshed, or death, for the accused
The next stage is to draft the document. We need to show some teeth, Mwonzora says quietly to a colleague. The teeth appear in the draft on the chapter dealing with the presidency. The legal drafters have inserted a paragraph that asserts that a president who has served two terms will be barred from holding office again. It struck directly at Mugabe. It would automatically exclude him as soon as the new constitution became law.
Mangwana is reduced to gibbering terror. His life is in danger. ZANU(PF) is calling him a sellout and there are murmurs of treason.Though he had nothing to do with the insertion of the clause, he is adjudged to have violated his party’s cardinal rule “ never cross Robert Mugabe. Mwonzora is determined to keep the clause.
Eventually, the MDC leadership steps in, and lets Mugabe off. He is halfway through his current term, and ZANU(PF) has nominated as its candidate in 2018 so Mugabe can legally stand then and remain in office until 2023. Mangwana becomes his usual jovial self and he and Mwonzora get on with finishing the rest of the document without too much trouble.
But Mangwana, who is seen earlier as telling a journalist she will feel my fist for asking too many negative questions, has begun to show signs of undergoing a profound change of heart. He implicitly agrees that ZANU(PF) was responsible for the violence where he had rocks thrown at him. The dogs are unleashed, he says. They need to brought back home.
After his experience over the controversial clause to limit Mugabe’s term of office, he remarks: What I have realised is that people don’t admire ruffians as leaders. He adds: We need change.
The star of the show, of course, is Mugabe. Ipsen’s skill in capturing every flickered nuance reveals the dread effect the old dictator has on people. On one of the two occasions he appears, he looks like an old Mafia don, in a pale brown suit with shiny tan shoes. Addressing the COPAC forum, he makes jokes but his eyes are lizard-like, predatory.
I want the people to say what they would want (about the constitution); but we are the drivers and we dare not surrender this to anyone else, he says at the inaugural meeting. He has just rubbished the whole point of COPAC, but the audience laughs. Ibsen catches the hollow, forced mirth, like trembling schoolboys laughing at the wisecracks of a whip-wielding headmaster.
On another occasion, Mugabe refers to Mangwana and his new friend, Mwonzora. The remark carries a frightening scarcely concealed double meaning – an accusation of betrayal . Mangwana appears frozen with fear. Ipsen catches the throb of a vein on his forehead. Around him, the audience brays its forced laugh.
Peter Tygesen, another Dane, who first conceived of filming COPAC, says the subject goes right to the heart of politics in Zimbabwe. It is democracy and human rights. I thought it would be perfect.
He picked Nielsson as director after seeing an earlier film of hers on traffic management in Mumbai. I could see she grabbed the audience from the beginning, and she did it with respect for the people, and with humour. Also, for Zimbabwe’s hostile political environment she was perfect. She never draws attention to herself. Dressed in grey blouse and pants, no make up, hair in a ponytail. Just a very, very strong woman, not going to let anything stand in the way of the task.
Ipsen is well known internationally. His camera almost never stopped rolling, even if it was on Mwonzora or Mangwana on a long drive in the COPAC car. He films compulsively, says Tygesen. When you watch the film, you think there are two three cameramen, but it’s just one.
His first undertaking was to get permission from Zimbabwe’s officialdom, slow, hidebound and usually resistant to Western ideas. For more than six months Tygesen ground through endless meetings with bureaucrats and politicians. To the astonishment of the three filmmakers, the project was approved. No-one could understand why we got such cordial attention, said Tygesen. And even more amazing, nobody demanded the right to check on the film before it was released.
Finance had to be arranged. To keep costs down to a minimum, it was decided to use a crew of only two. Then instead of running for the projected 18 months for the whole process, it dragged on for three years. Costs ballooned. Nielsson guesses it ran to about US$1.5 million. Now over a year since its first release, she thinks at may have finally moved out of the red.
They got down to work. They arrived (from Denmark) late at night (to film for several weeks), said Tygesen, who was resident in Harare at the time. They had to get up at 4 am, drive for maybe five hours, without food, jump out of the car and start filming. They were never concerned about their personal comfort. They were completely dedicated. At the end of a stint they flew back to Copenhagen to edit long hours of new footage. They worked, worked, worked.
They knew their whiteness was immediately conspicuous wherever they went. However they had very few incidents. Producing their documents from the government allowed them to work mostly unhindered. There were a couple of occasions when we were scared. Being a white crew in Zimbabwe can be intimidating, said Nielsson. The fear about who is listening. But we decided, we’re going to film anyway.
I’m very good at getting out of trouble, and not getting into trouble. We were also lucky. Also, I don’t have a journalist’s critical faculty. I observe, stay in the background, let the protagonists tell the story. We were completely trusted
Earnest, Mwonzora’s aide, told them. Why you have been so lucky and safe is that you don’t do anything under the table.
In the beginning of process, Copac officials from both parties refused to travel in the same cars together. But after a couple of weeks, they were travelling in the same vehicles, said Nielsson. Then the issue became, what radio station should we listen to (the ZANU(PF)-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, or outside stations)?
And then people became friends and became emotionally involved. I know of at least one COPAC baby.
Of course, by the end of the movie, the audience’s feelings of warmth that came from witnessing the relationship between Mangwana and Mwonzora, and the hope for new beginnings in Zimbabwe, is undercut by the knowledge that Mugabe has covered the entire COPAC process in ordure.
As for limiting his terms to the end of 2023, he let us know last week: I will be there until God says, come. But as long as I am alive I will lead the country.
Note: Democrats is currently available on Netflix in South Africa (extremely rare for a documentary to be offered on the Netflix list). The producers are also working on DVD/Blueray release, which they hope will be out in about April.
Zimbabweans will have to wait. The nonagenarian chairman of the Board of Censors last year allowed it to be shown publicly for two occasions only. The producers made a second application several months ago, but no sign of life from the board.