An intriguing look at an authoritarian state on the verge of democratization: how Zimbabwe got a new constitution. Two political enemies are forced on a joint mission to write Zimbabwe's new constitution. The ultimate test that will either take the country a decisive step closer to democracy and away from President Mugabe's dictatorship, or toward renewed repression. In a country with little respect for human rights, impeded by economic sanctions and hyperinflation running rampant, failure is not an option.
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★★★★ review by Megan on Letterboxd
I’m not very invested in politics. Sometimes that's shameful especially when those around me are more active whether it's campaigning, social justice or watching CNN. I was more informed when I was younger and every school night was spent with Daily Show and Colbert. It’s weird to think there was a time that I knew what was going on in my own country’s government but as I got older, my interests shifted and I channeled more of my concerns towards African current events. Late night Comedy Central was replaced with podcast/radio programs like BBC’s “Focus on Africa” and recently “Africa News Tonight” on the Voice of America so for the past six years I’ve been more aware of the happenings on the “content” than in my own back yard. As much as I should care about laws that affect me, they seem so insignificant when you listen to reports on coups, rampant corruption, and election violence. While it is important to keep abreast with our contentious election which is driving us all mad, there’s merit in examining other countries which remind us how lucky we have it. Democrats is a Danish documentary about the writing of the Zimbabwean constitution which is a very difficult task to conduct under a dictatorship. It’s a crash course in the rough terrain of African politics with the specificity of the suppressive regime that runs Zimbabwe.
Director Camilla Nielsson follows the unlikely pair Paul Mangwana of the ruling ZANU-PF party and Douglas Mwonzora of the opposition MDC-T party who are set with the daunting task of drafting the new constitution. The drawn out process begins with good intentions in 2008 where they and a coalition visit villages for town hall type meeting to ask the people what guidelines and regulations they’d like to see put in place with this document. Ideals are quickly dashed at least for Mwonzora as the powerful reach of the Mugabe’s leading party complicates every step of the way from busing in supporters to prewritten answers to intimidation even towards Mwonzora himself. The narrative is less about rival factions working harmoniously to complete an initiative but more of a David and Goliath story as you want for the MDC-T to make any kind of headway in this movement. Mangwana is a personification of the overly confident antagonist that is ZANU-PF which has been unshakeable for 30 years. He can laugh off any allegation because the police and the justice system are on his side while Mwonzora must choose his words more carefully because the wrong word could land him in jail.
The documentary's tone I would describe as a horror-comedy because so much of it is outright ridiculous yet scary for some of those same reasons. Mangwana hardly ever acts like an appointed official and more of a schoolyard bully who yells at anyone who disagrees with him from newspaper editors to members of the coalition. He’ll have a huge smile on his face when he gets his way or the most dejected frown when things go wrong. If only it could be as harmless as it sounds because as tensions rise in communities marred with ZANU intimidation, you’re reminded the dark realities of living under a hostile president. One of the most endearing moments is when Mwonzora pays his respects at the residents of a supporter who was beaten to death by ZANU-PF. In the anger and sadness neighbors finally speak out about the issues they have with Mugabe and that they want change. Any time the film gets too comedic, nearly satirical, it’s honed back in by bringing to light the dangerous consequences of political activism. Both our leads find their lives in jeopardy, Mwonzora is thrown in jail on trumped-up charges and Mangwana’s loyalty is questioned by his party which is equally deadly.
The story ends on a questionable high note. After the delayed and years-long affair, a constitution is typed up in Microsoft word and printed out on an average home printer. It’s unceremonious but everyone is relieved that it’s over. Sadly, opposition’s hopes for this constitution to put a stop to Mugabe’s stronghold does not come to fruition and if you know anything about Zimbabwe, it has fallen deeper and deeper into bankruptcy since the documentary’s completion in 2013. It’s not a happy ending but as a postscript I was comforted to learn that Mwonzora isn’t dead and still fighting for freedom.
Democrats is a fascinating hands-on exploration of what African politics looks like in action which is often fledgling and disorganized but well intentioned. For me, it was seeing these reports I’ve only ever listened to come to life. For anyone else, it’s learning more about how “democracy” can function globally. As for what is the solution to the problems the film presents, this year has seen great shifts in public opinion. With the country's veterans, once Mugabe's greatest supporters turning away because they are no longer receiving benefits and the #ThisFlag movement started by pastor Evan Mawarire is its own seedlings of a revolution. Zimbabweans shouldn't have to wait for a 92-year-old geezer to kick the bucket to see improvements with their economy and living conditions. I know a lot of people won't take the time to watch this movie because interest in Africa is pretty niche but as you visit the polls on November 8th and vote for whoever you want to vote for, just know how exciting and special it is that you have the ability to do so.
★★★½ review by Ewan on Letterboxd
You probably think a documentary about the process of writing a Zimbabwean constitution is not what you want to watch but in fact it's gripping and at times funny even, albeit in a slightly grim way. Two representatives, lawyers, from either side of Zimbabwe's political divide (Mwonzora from MDC-T and Mangwana from ZANU-PF) have an at times testy at times friendly rivalry and try to get the process going in the face of covert unseen forces trying to derail things. Mugabe is only glimpsed briefly but his machinations are evident, and there are definitely stretches when Mangwana seems like a broken man.
★★★★½ review by Jeroen Kraan on Letterboxd
Wonderful look at the creation of the Zimbabwean constitution. If that sounds incredibly boring, I can assure you that it's not. Director Camilla Nielsson got incredible (and frankly mystifying) access to lawmakers in both major parties. Even Mangwana, the man who belongs to the ruling ZANU-PF party, is frank and likeable. His party is constantly trying to sabotage the democratic process, yet you never feel that he is a bad person. Rarely have we been able to get such a close-up look of a dictatorship on the (possible) verge of a major political shift.
★★★★ review by MooseMeister on Letterboxd
Fascinating, sometime frustrating, sometime uplifting inside look in how democracy works, the perils, political power plays and intrigues and acts of reconciliation involved. Anyone can learn lessons from the process.
★★★½ review by Marc Lummis on Letterboxd
The way Nielsson lets Mangwana and Mwonzora illustrate their characters, with their hopes and their foibles, is a triumph of documentary technique.
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