‘Democrats’ Is an Incisive Profile of Zimbabwe’s Smiling Dictatorship

Upfront Films

Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora are extremely busy. That’s probably a very boring thing to say about politicians, but it’s also the first thing you notice. The two men are the stars of Democrats, Camilla Nielsson’s chronicle of the writing of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. Each of her subjects is introduced from the front seat of his car, in transit between political meetings and public events. Later, after three years of political struggle, it is also where Nielsson will leave them. These very important people, often less than amicable rivals, are constantly on the move. It’s the nature of political work in a country where public debates sometimes happen outdoors and rural residents are not so far from the capital that they can’t be bused in to change the composition of a meeting.

But that’s skipping ahead. Democrats is the narrative of a very specific fight. In 2008, facing a high point in international pressure, longtime dictator Robert Mugabe was forced to accept a power sharing agreement. A new constitution was to be written and the effort would be monitored by representatives of all major political parties, not just Mugabe’s own ZANU-PF. Mangwana is a member of ZANU-PF and a longtime government minister. Mwonzora is from MDC-T, the party of opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

The constitution is to be derived from meetings held all across the country. Nielsson follows Mangwana and Mwonzora separately to these meetings, along the way crafting a remarkably insightful pair of political profiles. You can tell just from the way he carries himself that Mangwana has settled into his years of power. ZANU-PF doesn’t really see defeat as a realistic possibility, and so its ministers are understandably relaxed. He laughs constantly, greatly amused by his own authority. He grins at a meeting with war veterans, while directing them intimidate those at constitutional meetings to support ZANU-PF positions. He jokes to Mwonzora about the obvious busing in of rural ZANU-PF supporters to MDC-T strongholds in Harare, barely committing to a stated denial. He’s having a great time because he’s winning, and there’s nothing Mwonzora can do about it.

His opposition counterpart, meanwhile, has all of the personal rigor and ideological commitment of someone who has only been on the outside of an oppressive political regime. He likes talking strategy, explaining to Nielsson why the capital city of Harare is so important to the MDC-T proposals in the constitution. Once the public meetings are over and the committee gathers to write the draft constitution, he displays remarkable patience. Mangwana clearly thinks the whole thing is a waste of time and tries to rush past crucial clauses. Mwonzora, calmly, insists that his voice be heard on even the smallest detail. It is important, after all, whether media need to be licensed. It is even more important whether a certain sitting president is allowed to stand for reelection.

Of course, ZANU-PF cannot tolerate a loss on this point. Standing in the way of permanent Mugabe rule puts Mwonzora under threat of arrest. As Mangwana explains it, this is simply how power works. The system controls the prisons. Fighting the system is an irrational act. As for Mwonzora, this dramatic setback is simply an example of how quickly everything can change. It can change back with equal speed. Mangwana himself spends a few minutes of Democrats out of favor with the establishment. It seems that the powers above him don’t like the way things are going and suddenly he’s on the phone, yelling that the ZANU-PF attack dogs be brought home. A major newspaper sees him on the wane and publishes an editorial attack. He promptly sues them for libel.

All the while the two men keep moving as fast as they can. Nothing is politically certain in Zimbabwe except Mugabe. You don’t need to see all of Democrats to know that the constitution that was eventually approved in 2013 postponed its most significant changes for another decade, only coming into effect after the nonagenarian president is dead and gone. The fact of his constant authority is what makes Mangwana so giddy, but also what sends him into visible paranoia the moment his own place is threatened. And his own sense of humor is shared by the president himself.

Mugabe appears just a few times in Democrats, but he always leaves a memorable impression. When he speaks, often in vague terms about his own power, everyone laughs. In one public event he takes a shot at Mwonzora, joking that “Sometimes people fail to know where power is derived from.” The audience bursts into laughter. The entire room thinks it’s hilarious that Mwonzora was hit by the law, however briefly, for his foolish presumption to alter the structures of power. It is a whole genre of humor based entirely on a shared assumption of security and privilege. Mugabe is, at core, a stand-up comedian who delivers exclusively inside jokes to an inside audience. And by focusing on this laughter, Nielsson has crafted one of the most uniquely resonant political profiles since Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room.

Democrats is now playing at Film Forum in New York City.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.