“Decolonization Has to Work in Both Directions; Both the Colonized and Colonizer Have to be Decolonized”: Camilla Nielsson on President
Currently competing for both the Dox:Award and the Politiken Danish:Dox Award at this year’s hybrid CPH:DOX (April 21-May 5), Camilla Nielsson’s President is a riveting followup to 2014’s Democrats, which centered on two political rivals in a Sisyphean quest to transform Zimbabwe from a corrupt dictatorship into a fledgling democracy. It’s also a film Nielsson never intended to make. But that was before a ban, a military coup, and the rise of two new political rivals led the undaunted director to pick up her camera once again.
With President Nielsson focuses on the young and charismatic leader of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) Nelson Chamisa, and his scrappy campaign to defeat the decidedly unsexy Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the crocodile,” who heads the entrenched ZANU-PF party. (Mnangagwa was also a former ally of Mugabe’s before a falling out led to his turning on his boss, and eventually helping to unseat the strongman after nearly four decades in power.) Granted up close access to Chamisa and his team Nielsson quietly bears witness as the longtime political activist, his face forever registering the weight of the nation on his shoulders, does the unthinkable — actually spends more time deeply listening to voters than shallowly speechifying. As the MDC leader puts it at a packed rally, the country’s utmost desire is to be “led” and not “ruled.”
CPH festival director Tine Fischer will moderate a conversation with Nielsson on April 25 that will be viewable on Facebook. Filmmaker was fortunate enough to catch up with the globetrotting filmmaker not long after the doc nabbed the Special Jury Award, Verite Filmmaking at Sundance to learn all about her return to the campaign trail and how military-style crackdowns and allegations of voter fraud are no longer the purview of a faraway Global South.
Filmmaker: I find it fascinating that President actually came about as a result of a nationwide ban on your prior film Democrats. Can you talk a bit about this? Did you work with the same lawyers to overturn the injunction as your protagonist Nelson Chamisa did after the presidential election? Is the current government attempting to stop President from being shown in Zimbabwe as well?
Nielsson: It was definitely not in the cards for me to make President. As you rightly state, my previous film Democrats (2014) had been banned by the Zimbabwean Censorship Board with the curt assessment, “Banned and prohibited in Zimbabwe. Not suitable for showing to the public.” Ironically, the ban was in direct contravention with the country’s new democratic constitution, which Democrats had followed the making of for more than three years.
In the process of making Democrats I met some of Zimbabwe’s finest lawyers. When the film was banned they suggested that the ban should be challenged on the basis that it violated the constitutionally protected freedom of expression, and the public’s right to information. Together we began the legal challenge to have the ban lifted. Without knowing it, this process became the starting point for this new film President.
In February 2018, following a two-year legal battle in the Zimbabwean courts, a high court judge finally ruled that the ban should be lifted, and people were free to watch the film in the country where it matters most. It was during a dinner in Harare in celebration of the court ruling that one of the participants from Democrats suggested that I make the sequel. Longtime dictator Robert Mugabe had just fallen in a military coup three months before, a change was on the horizon. It seemed that the time was ripe for the people of Zimbabwe to make a push for democracy that would overcome the tragic and unhappy history portrayed in the first film.
I hope that the current government in Zimbabwe will not try to ban the new film, or in any other way attempt to prevent the film from being screened in Zimbabwe.
Filmmaker: What are the biggest challenges for filming in Zimbabwe, especially since you seem to be persona non grata to the government due to the Democrats controversy. Do they allow you some leeway since it’s in their interest to maintain a facade of press freedom? Do they try to exert pressure every step of the way?
Nielsson: I will not attempt to speculate as to the government’s reasons for giving me permission to film this time around. But after I won the court case for Democrats I was legally able to travel into the country again and also film in Zimbabwe with official filming permits. Any work of documentary or journalistic integrity is going to be challenging in a situation where transparency and accountability are suppressed by those seeking to maintain the status quo. I think you can see clearly from the film the other challenges that were presented.
Filmmaker: Considering the heinous history of exploitation across the African continent at the hands of mainly white European folks I’m very curious to hear how you avoid colonialist filmmaking, both in practice and appearance. Do you employ local crew during production? I noticed there are quite a few “anonymous” listed in the credits.
Nielsson: Documentary has served to position Africa within the discourse of authority that colonialism engendered, and we know that documentary must be reimagined and reintroduced to the African public and the global public — by Africans.
A film like President is only possible when many, many people in front of and behind the camera agree to collaborate on all levels. The Zimbabwean crew members cannot be named in the credits at this time for security concerns. It has been our shared goal to situate the people in the film in an ethical relationship with the people viewing it. Decolonization has to work in both directions; both the colonized and colonizer have to be decolonized, and as Teju Cole has pointed out, telling stories in which we are complicit outsiders has to be done with both imagination and skepticism. “It’s not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you, but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed.”
Filmmaker: I think that for many Americans who saw the film at Sundance, mere weeks after an attempted insurrection at the US Capitol, the film’s themes hit a bit too close to home. I mean, six people were killed when the Zimbabwean army opened fire on people protesting delayed election results in 2018, but we ourselves saw five lose their lives during the Capitol riot! (Not to mention the military-style policing employed throughout the racial justice protests last summer.) Were you thinking about global parallels during the making of this film, and if so, how did it affect the shaping of the narrative?
Nielsson: We began shooting this film in spring 2018, after Trump had become president of the US. We also have anti-democratic forces gaining ground in Europe, and both these developments did increase our interest in making a film about the importance of democratic institutions. But our main focus was always what was actually happening on the ground in Zimbabwe. When we started filming there we did not know how the Zimbabwean election campaign would develop.
While editing, however, we of course realized that we were seeing a parallel situation evolve in Zimbabwe and the United States. Two sitting presidents, Mnangagwa and Trump, were intent on maintaining their grip on power regardless of election outcomes, in contravention of their sworn duty to respect their respective constitutions, and were willing to go to great lengths to do so. Both claiming fraud, perpetrating fraud, threatening people who conscientiously objected or refused to be cowed, and then finally resorting to violence. Though I would be careful not to compare Zimbabwe’s military forces firing live ammunition at civilian protestors in Harare to the overwhelmed US Capitol police force in Washington DC. Capitol police were defending the lives of democratically elected US government representatives from a violent racist mob threatening to lynch or otherwise execute them – and carrying all the symbols of that violent and distinctly American hateful legacy.
What was shocking to those of us in Zimbabwe, as well as Denmark, was to see Americans attempt to break their own democracy some undoubtedly misguided and in the belief they were preserving it, but many with the full knowledge that this was a big lie that was being propagated by Trump. While the Movement for Democratic Change was facing a very real fraud, and our own protagonists were working so hard for the establishment of strong democratic institutions.
Democracy can only function if every citizen respects the life of every other citizen, and considers them to have equal rights. The underpinning value here is that all lives have equal value under the social contract and rule of law. If you succeed in divorcing people from this value in the name of, say, white supremacy, then you destroy the framework. Then anything goes in the name of survival of the fittest. And often the least fit are the most heavily armed.
Filmmaker: Do you expect to return to Zimbabwe for a trilogy? The ending of President seems every bit as much a beginning.
Nielsson: Right now my main concern is to bring President to audiences in Zimbabwe and the world. I would love to make more films in Zimbabwe, but when or whether this will be possible only the future will show.