Shot in cinéma-vérité from the get-go, director Camilla Nielsson’s latest documentary signals straight away that something monumental is about to happen, regardless of the viewer’s awareness of the recent and continuing political situation in Zimbabwe. President is the tense, distressing and interminably frustrating exploration of the 2018 Zimbabwean presidential elections, following the campaign of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and their candidate Nelson Chamisa, the opposition who put up a direct challenge to the ruling party, ZANU-PF. President makes for very difficult but very necessary watching, highlighting ZANU-PF and its puppet organisations’ abuses of power – in the ballot box, on the street, and colluding with international organisations – as they rig and subsequently steal the election.
Nielsson’s second documentary on the politics of Zimbabwe is somewhat reminiscent of Petra Costa’s recent The Edge of Democracy (2019) which charted Brazil’s unravelling due to the undercurrent of right-wing influence which resulted in the election of Jair Bolsonaro. With President, however, Zimbabwe is four decades into a regime that much of its population is desperate to emerge from. Despite Robert Mugabe being ousted from the presidency in 2017 after 37 years we learn that little has changed in the country: indeed, Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is from the same party.
President follows opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and his staffers through the challenges of 2018, from their fevered four-month presidential campaign, to their tense election week and then to the MDC party’s judicial challenge to the heavily fabricated election results the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe. There is a perpetually sinking feeling throughout as the optimism sprung from the MDC campaign meets the cold hard reality of the ZANU-PF’s deep-seated corruption and collusion with the Zimbabwean Commission – allegedly set up to ensure a fair and transparent election on the international stage.
Much of the first half of the documentary focuses on Nelson Chamisa’s evident charisma with the Zimbabwean population. Referring to him as “President” as many of them do, it is clear that he has already earned their loyalty, promising that he will follow through with employment, food programmes and repercussions for the criminals that have terrorised the country for the last four decades. In comparison, and in a scene that has echoes of the 2020 U.S. elections, we see a Mugagwe rally in which seats are far from filled despite bussing in supporters from distant provinces.
Any residual hope from the first half, however, is gone in the second, when the announcement of the election results is delayed by several days, international journalists are threatened at an MDC press conference that is itself almost shut down by armed police, and six citizens are murdered on the streets of Harare by a group of soldiers armed with tanks and rifles. President paints a very bleak and pragmatic picture of the political situation not only in Zimbabwe but of how such abuses of power can and are exercised elsewhere. During the election week, one of Chamisa’s staffers observes that if Chamisa were to win “we will no longer be talking politics, we will be talking reality.” Chamisa and the MDC may have had their victory unjustly and violently taken away from them, but hopefully President will go some way to making their struggle less like politics and more like reality to the rest of the world.