On 21 November 2017, Zimbabwe’s controversial President Robert Mugabe was ousted from power after 30 years of unbroken rule. Having won five consecutive elections under suspicious circumstances, many observers have categorized his government as a failed dictatorship that led directly to the country’s economic decline. In the aftermath of the 2017 coup d’etat, his immediate successor Emmerson Mnangagwa faced expectations of the country’s first truly democratic elections. A supposedly impartial Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was subsequently established, with the mandate of ensuring free and fair voting. The whole world watched with anticipation. But what happened next?
Director Camilla Nielsson’s President tells the gripping story of Zimbabwe’s hard-won democracy with a focus on the pivotal 2018 election. The documentary hits the campaign trail alongside the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, following the upstart 40-year-old’s rising popularity before, during, and after the vote. Running on a platform of progressive change, all signs seem to point toward Chamisa claiming an upset victory. But as election night draws near, history seems to repeat itself as the ruling ZANU-PF begin to wield their influence in disconcerting ways. The first red flag arises when early ballots are printed without the consent of the opposing MDC Alliance, calling into question the integrity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the legitimacy of the election itself.
The race starts off promisingly enough, with Chamisa’s rallies drawing large crowds of enthusiastic supporters. In one memorable meeting, we see voters air their concerns about empty promises after three decades of disappointment. Displaying an obvious desire for a new political order, their passion instills in viewers a sense of hope that allows them to become invested in the tumultuous saga to come.
Indeed, the electorate and Chamisa are the exciting protagonists of this story, hoping to inflict an “Obama effect” on the establishment. And with his charisma and positivity, Chamisa comfortably fits the bill of an Obama-like political figure. For her part, Nielsson leaves no ambiguity as to which side she is on, keeping the focus squarely on the underdogs. Yet the film never suffers from its partiality, as tense press conferences repeatedly prove the lack of transparency from the government and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. When we further learn of their use of bribery to attract votes and violent attacks to quell dissent, the general absence of their perspective comes as a relief.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that things don’t turn out well for Chamisa. Still, Nielsson’s unflinching camera keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way. As a sinking feeling of helplessness sets in, Chamisa’s tireless fight feels downright heroic. He keeps hope alive amid death threats and insidious corruption, bringing to mind another political Sundance film. As Fred Hampton warns in Judas and the Black Messiah, you can murder a revolutionary but you can’t murder a revolution.
President screened as a part of Sundance 2021, which runs until February 3.