PRESIDENT, the documentary from filmmaker Camilla Nielsson, offers a gripping and unprecedented front seat to recent history — as well as dire warnings about what lies ahead.
The incidents it chronicles likely sound familiar to American viewers. A young and progressive political upstart runs on a message of hope. A national election faces allegations of widespread fraud. A bullying leader regularly evades accountability to the press.
Though President is set over the past four years in Zimbabwe, Nielsson and Thandiwe Newton, one of the film’s executive producers, believe the story continuing to unfold there reflects the fragile fate of constitutional democracy worldwide.
“This is not just a Zimbabwean story,” Nielsson says.
“It’s a story about the importance of democracy and what happens when it’s disintegrated.”
Newton, who is of Zimbabwean descent, feels an especially strong mission-driven connection to the film. “I honestly feel that my life as a human rights activist has crystallized to this point,” she says.
President follows visionary opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa in his 2018 campaign against the sitting president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The country has been promised its first free and fair election following the removal of longtime former president — and effective dictator — Robert Mugabe, by military coup.
Chamisa draws rallies of tens of thousands of supporters, energized by his promise to deliver the country from its strongman party, which has presided over food shortages, economic crisis and political violence.
Nielsson’s crew is there at every turn, as the landmark election is held — and allegedly stolen — right before their cameras. In one particularly heart-stopping scene, the filmmakers are caught in crossfire that leaves six people dead during a demonstration over the contested result.
Nielsson’s 2014 film Democrats, which documented what would be former President Mugabe’s final years in power and the drafting of a new constitution, was banned by Zimbabwe’s Censorship Board in the same category as pornography.
Nielsson successfully fought the decision to be reversed, and the appeal process led Nielsson to embark on the making of President, using her singular access behind the scenes to track the potential dawn of a new era in the country.
As the events of the film demonstrate, that time hasn’t come just yet. (Nielsson hopes to make a third film to complete the trilogy.)
But President stands as a vital historical record, casting light on a volatile and evolving situation with Zimbabwean lives and livelihoods at stake.
“Information is power,” Newton says. “This is not just a movie, it’s documented material about people’s lives in a country where they are deciding how to forge their future.”
Nielsson and Newton spoke to each other about the project from New York, reflecting on the global context of the film, its function as a witness to history, and the inspiration they’ve drawn from its subjects.
Thandiwe Newton: Camilla, what you’ve done with President is a miracle. We need this film in order to tackle this moment. In a way, we have created our own justice system with the documentary, haven’t we? I’m baffled each time I watch the film, because I think, “Did we really see that?” And we fucking did, and I can’t believe it.
There’s no narration in the film, and for me, it feels like you’re insisting that people believe you’re not manipulating anybody. It is so powerful as a filmmaker to choose not to do that. Everything we see is just what was. It’s the most extraordinary drama, just on an entertainment level. Then it sinks in and you realize this is real. And it’s partly because Nelson has such a natural charisma, the way he’s able to articulate irony and wit in the middle of situations that you cannot imagine. He is the real deal. Camilla, did you ever think about narrating?
Camilla Nielsson: I’ve never done a film with any kind of narration. For me, as a cinema verité filmmaker, I’m looking for those moments of authenticity exactly as you’re saying — to create a feeling that you’re not being manipulated or emotionally pushed toward a certain endpoint, in this case a tragedy. Like you say, Thandiwe, I want to let subjects stand and speak for themselves because it is much more powerful.
In terms of my two Zimbabwe films, in a sensitive environment and as a non-Zimbabwean, I feel it’s my duty not to interpret the situation on behalf of Zimbabweans, but merely offer my lens and my platform to somebody who doesn’t have a voice — or who, if they had used that voice, would have been either killed or in jail.
Newton: You put yourself at risk, Camilla, for the voiceless and invisible. The altruism that you have chosen as a filmmaker, particularly in this situation, will feed me for the rest of my life. The fact that you made Democrats adds to our faith in you, our trust in this lens and your knowledge of Zimbabwe. That you were given full access by the government, under both Mugabe and Mnangagwa, shows the respect they have for you.
When Mnangagwa took the position of president, he promised he would allow for democracy, and in that spirit, he allowed Camilla to be there. He promised he would not be Mugabe, and all of us were hoping that was true. This documentary asks, “Well, is that true or not?”
Nielsson: Retrospectively, I think the ban was lifted on Democrats in 2018 to create some thin veneer of democracy. And I think that’s also why they gave me the second permit to come back and film the election. I don’t know what’s going to happen when this film is released early next year in Zimbabwe; I suspect it’s also going to be banned. That may prevent us from making the third film that we really would like to make, when, I am assuming, Chamisa will take power.
Newton: People in Zimbabwe need access to this film so they can make a free and fair choice for themselves. This is like pamphlets being dropped from the sky. If you look at where this film is allowed to be seen and where it isn’t — you can generate feeling with film, and we are trying to generate genuine feeling in a world where it’s been muted.
I’ve never been able to speak about Zimbabwe, because I am so scared of it being political. And it’s not political. Why should I muzzle myself for people who are genuinely my blood relatives, when I speak openly about human rights everywhere else in the world? When I saw President, I suddenly thought, “What am I doing? These are my blood.” I realized that what we’re fighting is terrorism.
Nielsson: Another concern, as you know, Thandiwe, is that there were two assassination attempts against Chamisa in one weekend in October. One when they blocked his car and stoned it; a second, even more serious, when a gun was actually fired through the back window of his car.
Newton: And people surrounding the car trying to protect him are being beaten or thrown into prison. The only power they have in their life is to protect the car of the man that should be president, and they would die for it. My love for these people, there’s no match for it.
Nielsson: It’s very humbling.
Newton: It is, and this is the world that we’re in. It’s vital that we are educated about our common humanity, even if all we can do is cry. To not know is a crime, when we can know.
Nielsson: As a filmmaker, I witnessed a great injustice in the election being stolen right before our very eyes. And the international community was present. There was so much hope and anticipation in this election in 2018, because it was the first in the country without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. He’d been running the country with an iron grip since independence in 1980, so this was really the chance for change.
I think the hijacking of the Electoral Commission was all planned; I was not surprised in a way that it happened, having worked in Zimbabwe for 14 years. What I was really upset about was the international community’s role in this. Because when you come to a country as an election observer, you give the people of Zimbabwe a false sense of security, that this time somebody is watching. Then when things got muddy or too complicated, people took their E.U. or U.S. passports and jumped on the next plane.
Newton: I’m trying to look at it from a bird’s-eye point of view and ask, “Who’s the bad guy?” Here’s a documentary that is about real people, real passion, the future, life. It’s both inspiring and devastating. Once it drops into the consciousness of people, things will happen. What those things are, who can tell honestly at this point, because it is baffling.