Democrats is a film about the creation of a new constitution in Zimbabwe. In the wake of Robert Mugabe’s contentious 2008 presidential win, Zimbabwe convened a bipartisan constitutional committee in an effort to transition the country away from its corrupt authoritarian leadership. Your film follows two top politicians, Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora who have been appointed to lead the country through the reform process. The two men are political opponents, but united in the ambition to make history by giving the nation a new founding document — that can give birth to Zimbabwe’s future.
OWFF: I am told you spent three years filming Democrats. How did you adapt to life in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?
CN: It’s true that we spent three years filming Democrats, but we didn’t live there all the time. We were only given filming permits for 30 days at a time, so we went back and forth between Copenhagen and Zimbabwe on 13 different filming trips to get what we needed to make the film.
Your ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style of observational filmmaking used throughout Democrats works quite well. Why did you chose this style of filmmaking for this project?
All my films are observational. I’m trained as an visual anthropologist, so the observational methodology is very close to home. Also, since Democrats is a Zimbabwean story, that would ideally have been told by a Zimbabwean voice, it was important for me to have as little presence in the film as possible, and let the people involved in the process speak for themselves.
Many of your previous films such as Good Morning Afghanistan (2003), Durga (2004), and The Children of Darfur (2005), as well as Mumbai Disconnected (2009), focus on stories in developing nations. Is the a subject close to your heart?
Very much. I think we live in our own bubbles in the Western world, and the distribution of wealth and resources is so unfair that it is almost perverse. Documentary films can help open people’s eyes and minds to these injustices, and I guess I feel less guilty about being born on the lucky side of the fence if my work can help create an awareness about issues that we would otherwise close our eyes to.
Democrats is your full-length feature debut. How is this film different/similar to your previous films?
Democrats is the biggest film project I have ever embarked on both in terms of time span, budget, hours of footage filmed, but perhaps most importantly also with regard to how difficult the filming environment was. Luckily, I was given so much local support throughout the filming process, and I will forever be grateful to those who were involved. I’m still in contact with most of the people I filmed, and I think the intensity of this project resulted in the creation of some very deep human relationships. Zimbabwe will always be very close to my heart because of it.
In the documentary there are several instances where you and your group are threatened. Were there ever any times when you felt that your filming put you in any real danger of harm?
Yes, we were in trouble many times, because we were filming, but fortunately nothing serious ever happened. There is a scene in the film where we are at a public hearing in the capital city Harare. Violence suddenly broke out and people started to attack Mangwana, our main character, who is Mugabe’s representative in the process.
Even though he is a senior representative of Mugabe’s party ZANU-PF, he was attacked by his own supporters and he was equally shocked that this could happen. We were in his car with no way to escape when a group of young men tried to lock us into the parking lot, threw stones at the car, and threatened us with a beating.
I think this was the time when I was most afraid, because when Mangwana also started to look fearful, I thought no one has control here. It was close!
What is one of the biggest misconception(s) about Zimbabwe?
A misconception in the West is that things only took a wrong turn when President Mugabe kicked out the white farmers and the economy collapsed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There was of course a lot of international media attention on the matter, because it involved white people as victims.
But in Mugabe’s early days as president, he allegedly killed 20-30’000 Zimbabweans belonging to the Ndebele tribe, but that was completely ignored by the international community.
Is there still hope for justice and true democracy in Zimbabwe?
Yes, I believe so. There is a very hard working and resilient opposition and many civil society organizations in Zimbabwe, and as long as they can keep fighting there is still hope.
Do you know what your film’s two main protagonists are up to these days?
Yes, they are doing well. They both came to Denmark for the premiere of the film last November and we spent the week together in Copenhagen. I was happy to welcome them in my country, after they had showed me so much of theirs. Mangwana is now busy working at his law practice, and he also runs several successful businesses. Mwonzora has risen in the ranks in his party and is now the Secretary General. In fact this week he is visiting Denmark again as a international guest at a political democratic convention and we are having dinner together this evening. I’m looking forward to catching up.
What have been the reactions so far from the audiences who have seen the film?
I think that for a seemingly dry film about a constitution-making process in Zimbabwe, we have had an amazing audience response. We have screened Democrats at more than 30 festivals now, won 9 awards and everywhere the audiences reactions have been very emotional. One thing that has also struck me is that whether we show it in New York, Serbia or in South Africa, people feel that the film resonates with their own political situation, that their own democracies are threatened and increasingly fragile.
So, I’d argue that this is not specifically a film about Zimbabwe, but also a more universal story about political enemies hoping to find common ground.
What are you hoping audiences will get out of this film?
I hope to create an understanding of how difficult it is to build a true democracy, especially in former colonial states. Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 after almost 100 years of colonial rule, and the damage done by the colonizers will still take years to undo. And then I guess that they feel that there is also a bit of hope that comes from this film’s ending, but I won’t reveal it here as again that would be a plot spoiler.
When did you first become interested in the documentary film genre?
I saw Jenny Livingston’s film Paris is Burning when I was 20, and that film made me want to make documentary films.
What are some favorite documentaries you have seen and why are they your favorites?
My favorite documentary is Albert Maysels’ film Salesman. I’m also a fan of Frederick Wiseman‘s films and of Allan King‘s work, especially his masterpiece A Married Couple. Of more recent works, I think that my friend Joshua Oppenheimer’s’ The Act of Killing is a masterpiece and a must see.
What projects are you currently working on ? What do we have to look forward to from you next?
I’m not working on a new film yet, as I have been travelling to festivals with Democrats for the last 8 months. We also have plans for an outreach program in Zimbabwe, and it is important that this last part of the distribution plan is executed as soon as possible. Finally, I still have to edit a shorter version for TV, so I don’t think I will be working on any news ideas before early next year.
Camilla Nielsson was trained as a documentary filmmaker at the Tisch School of the Arts and holds an M.A. in visual anthropology from New York University (NYU).
The award-winning filmmaker has directed the trilogy Good Morning Afghanistan (2003), Durga (2004), and The Children of Darfur (2005), as well as Mumbai Disconnected (2009), part of the Cities on Speed series. Since 2007, she has collaborated with the Israeli video artist Yael Bartana on the trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned (Venice Biennale 2011), and Re:Constructed Landscapes (National Gallery of Denmark/CPH:DOX 2012).
Her feature documentary debut Democrats is about the complexities and power struggles involved in the development of Zimbabwe’s new constitution.
Democrats (Denmark) screens at the OWFF on Thursday, September 24, 2015 along with the short documentary My Enemy, My Brother (Canada) at the National Gallery of Canada, 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa as part of the “Documenting Democracy” program at One World Film Festival
Doors @ 5:30pm
6:00 pm Introduction to 26th annual One World Film Festival
6:20 pm My Enemy, My Brother (Canada)
6:40 pm Democrats (Denmark)
8:45 pm A Discussion Panel with Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies
Check out this link for more details on the screening and to find out more about the One World Film Festival’s other offerings: One World Film Festival 2015 Schedule