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.