Director: Camilla Nielsson
4 (out of 5) Globes
Truth is stranger than fiction, but that goes quadruple with politics. No invented political satire can be as savage and troubling as the real deal, of which the doc “Democrats” is a prime specimen. Filmmaker Camilla Nielsson spent three years following the shambling attempts to piece together a Western-style constitution in Zimbabwe in the wake of its 2008 election, one which found longtime dictator Robert Mugabe forced to share power with his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Nielsson trained her cameras on two men from each side, forced to team up, as strained frenemies (though really minus the “fr-” part), to rally the people to come together, but more likely to not at all.
The result is a total, despairing shambles where all that’s learned is everything is a even more of a mess than expected. Through a scheduled 5,000 public meetings, both men — Paul Mangwana from Mugabe’s side; Douglas Mwonzora on the progressive, democratic one — seek to gauge, if not influence, who falls where. Some Zimbabweans, especially older ones, remain steadfast on their not-so-benevolent dictator’s side. Some are ignorant, others indifferent. Those for real change struggle to have their voices heard among the din.
Meanwhile, Mangwana, does his best to undermine hopes for a new Zimbabwe. At one point he looks at the camera, flashes a smile, and suggests no regret in averring that his mission is “to be seen as a man of peace, even if you are not.” Later Mangwana will get Mwonzora briefly jailed on some trumped-up, old charge. Like much of what’s shown in “Democrats,” this turn straddles the line between darkly funny and too real to be funny. Nervous, guilty laughter is the only response to a film that shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get a consensus view amidst corruption and a populace that’s been misinformed, if not intentionally deluded. You can’t even be sure of the side that’s ostensibly for good, as they too can be shady, cagey, just as prone to ignoble moves, even if to effect noble change. Here are issues specific to Zimbabwe and chillingly useful to any nation or culture crippled by ever-warring extremes.