True Victories: Our Review of ‘President (2021)’

True Victories: Our Review of ‘President (2021)’

Before I write about Camilla Nielsson’s new documentary President, I have to begin by discussing her previous work Democrats. It depicts Douglas Mwonzora, a member of Movement for Democratic Change Tzvagirari (MDC-T), an opposition political party in Zimbabwe. It also depicts Paul Mangwana, representing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), as they rewrite their country’s constitution. Mangwana, from my memory, made for one of documentary film’s most compelling antiheroes. Working with Mwonzora makes it seem like he’s ready to jump from his ship. Both men have supporting cameos in President.

But unfortunately, ten years after the events of that documentary, President shows Mangwana is still doing ZANU-PF’s bidding. Mangwana publicly defends his party from accusations of cheating during the 2008 elections. Those accusations come with the implications that they’re planning to cheat during what was then the forthcoming 2018 elections. President shows that a lot can stay the same in a ten year time span. But it also shows that a lot can change as well. Mwonzora could have been the leader of MDC-T, but instead, he’s supporting Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is forty years old in 2018. And the media repeats that act as if forty is too young to be president.

Nonetheless, Chamisa has shown through his activism that he can take executive leadership. This is a documentary depicting many campaign stops and contentious committee meetings. One of them captures Mangwana’s walkouts and another party boycotting the probably fraudulent elections. But Mwonzora and Chamisa are rowing against the current and are still participating in the elections. And if the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission did their jobs properly, Chamisa can and should win. Camilla Nielsson shows her interest in process in both of her documentaries. But this newer work shows her interest in the effects of those processes.

Nielsson’s camera eventually leaves committee rooms and follows what’s happening outside. There, in the streets, Chamisa’s supporters protest the fact that ZAC is delaying their count of the votes. This leads to army and police violence towards these protestors. The camera is distant when it needs to, showing how structures separate the media and the protestors. And it closes up as equally necessary. A content warning for viewers that the documentary does show graphic violence. Specifically, it shows a few protesters and civilians with heavy and or fatal injuries. Title cards eventually explain that six people died because of the protests.

Other critics who wrote about President a sense of rage while watching it. But as an immigrant who is quasi oblivious to Zimbabwean politics, I did not know whether or not Chamisa won. I can imagine a loud cynical minority of critics pointing out how President just shows truisms. Truisms like how a documentary is as compelling as its subject, but Nielsson adds gravitas to that truism. Her scope seems larger this time around. But her focus on Chamisa will make viewers feel what we should feel. Emotions run high before and after powerful elites throw hurdles at common people like Chamisa. The documentary truly makes us feel Chamisa and thus Zimbabwe’s recent heartbreak and hopes.

Danny Glover and Thandiwe Newton serve as executive producers for the documentary. It is important to write about the things that Nielsson leaves out in depicting Chamisa and MDC. Specifically, there’s the former’s homophobia and the latter’s infighting. I’m of two minds as to whether or not those omissions affect the film. The star rating above reflects those opinions.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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