Sundance 2021: President review


“This is a war room. I am here for a fight.” Under no illusion as to the scale of the task at hand, the deck is stacked against leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party and presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa. A follow-up to her 2014 film Democrats, Camilla Nielsson’s President tracks the rocky road to and from the crucial 2018 Zimbabwean elections.

In what is an exhaustive and exhausting documentary, the pitfalls and potholes up ahead can be seen coming a mile off. The challenge is in Chamisa’s attempts to avoid them, by plotting his own course forward with a positive, progressive, but above all legal agenda that is constantly undermined by someone else’s stranglehold on the steering wheel. With just four months to prepare for the elections, after the unexpected passing of former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, forty-year-old lawyer Chamisa steps up.

Granted a level of behind-the-scenes access that is seldom seen in investigative political journalism, thanks in no small part to a long-standing relationship between filmmaker and subject, Nielsson is a patient fly on the wall throughout the process. At over two hours, President is long. But upon reflection, it needs this time to adequately – and it does so comprehensively – communicate the uphill task that Chamisa and his dedicated, close-knit team must affront. The bare-faced corruption of the brutal Mugabe era having ended in 2017, hope stirs in voters across the nation for a brighter future. In little to no time, but with unending rallies and travel, Chamisa engages and energises a people crying out for change.

Whether a viewer comes to this documentary cold, or with prior knowledge of recent political developments in Zimbabwe, the more the then incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa repeatedly assures us that 2018 will see “a credible, free and fair election,” the less and less we believe him. Nielsson’s compilation of her material, along with editor Jeppe Bødskov, is subtle but effective. Other than television soundbites and public appearances, little is heard directly from Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF party.

Without commentary or interjection, the filmmakers are able to simply use Mnangagwa, as well as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s words, actions and blatant lies against them. There is an overriding sense that in spite of lofty rhetoric, things are staying very much the same, even if this is the first election in forty years not to feature Robert Mugabe. ZEC firmly in the existing government’s pocket and above any level of potential scrutiny, the situation seems helpless. And we can’t help but feel deeply uneasy as the MDC team refer to Chamisa as “Mr. President” from even the early stages, several weeks out.

This, and his certainty of victory – though entirely justified, strikes of tempting fate and a complacency that may well come back to haunt: especially in the knowledge that the other team are playing by their own distinct set of rules. As well as Nielsson’s clarity of vision, credit must go to cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen, who forms the second half of a bare bones on-site crew.

Footage captured during a peaceful demonstration and later a deadly riot in the wake of the vote itself are each impressive in their own right, but for deplorably different reasons. Bookmarked by parades, deliberate displays of military might, there is a painful symmetry to President. But Nielsson’s latest film displays a powerful force for change, and just how important the fight for true democracy remains in Zimbabwe and all over the world.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63