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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Camilla Nielsson • Director of President

“Democracy is an organism – if we don't nurture it, it will die, and faster than you think”


- We talked to acclaimed documentary filmmaker about her Sundance-screened feature, in which she throws people in at the deep end once again

Camilla Nielsson  • Director of President

Following Democrats [+see also:
film profile
, Danish director Camilla Nielsson returns to Zimbabwe with President [+see also:
film review
interview: Camilla Nielsson
film profile
– this time to observe the country's first “fair” election in 2018. As Nelson Chamisa, ready to build a new country, butts heads with Emmerson Mnangagwa, things get ugly right in front of her camera. We talked to Nielsson about the film, which has just scooped the Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking at Sundance (see the news).

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Cineuropa: You don't do “talking heads”, and you don't listen to experts talking about the past – it feels like it's all happening live. Why do you prefer it this way?
Camilla Nielsson: We set up some background information within the first three minutes, but it's filmed very much in the “now”. I am trained as an anthropologist; later on, I studied observational documentary and was very much inspired by Wiseman and Maysles. There is something about allowing the audience to experience what I have experienced with my camera, instead of having some experts telling you what to think. It's a way of reaching people's emotions and brains, at the same time trying not to be too analytical about it.

That must be something crucial to figure out: how much information do I need to provide? Not everyone follows politics.
It's always a difficult question – we all enter these stories from a different “knowledge point”. For me, it's not so important to know everything; it's more about experiencing someone's reality, and with my DoP, we sort of try to be there when things happen, instead of telling it all backwards and coming up with some sort of analysis. It's pretentious to think that if you know nothing about Zimbabwe, I can teach you everything in two hours. It's more interesting to throw people in at the deep end and let them explore for themselves.

That's how some learn to swim.
And they become much better swimmers without having their parents by their side. Some feel that my films don't explain enough, or that there is too much information that you are lacking. But others like this feeling of not knowing what to expect. We do provide enough context, and if you didn't know who Mugabe was, we give you some basics. But from that point on, you are on your own.

It's a recognisable set-up: it's House of Cards, and wherever you are, some things stay exactly the same. How much of what you show were they really anticipating? They do say: “What worries me is the morning after.”
Once Mugabe was gone, there was a sense of a new beginning, of a democratic space finally opening up. But the opposition has been through a lot: they have heard many promises over the years, and they were rightfully sceptical. I think they still went into it with an open mind, they kept fighting, and personally, I kept hoping, too – hoping for a legitimate government elected by the people. I remember that even during the court case, there was still hope – until the verdict came. Now, the country has gone back to Mugabe’s times in terms of inflation and corruption. There is this big apathy and a lack of belief in democracy, because it has happened again. And again.

This is something that many people share, also thinking about how it went down in the United States. They also had to deal with the “morning after”.
It's important to stress that although Trump claimed the election was rigged, it became a test for the American democratic system, and they passed. No judge believed in his claims. In Zimbabwe, I would claim there was voter fraud, but when the institutions are not independent, you can get away with murder.

Trump's claims, voiced just because he didn't want to lose, make Nelson Chamisa's case much more difficult – now, everyone can say the same thing. He made a mockery of the sanctity of the vote, but he also raised awareness of how important these institutions are. There were clear conditions that needed to be met in Zimbabwe in order to create an environment for the fair election, so even before, it just wasn't there. Sadly, there is this perception that in Africa, if not too much blood is spilled, then it's good enough. It's tragic. These standards should be universal.

It's true – if something similar were to happen in Europe, it would immediately make headlines.
Can you imagine people in Italy being beaten inside the polling stations? Or votes being exchanged for food? It would have raised eyebrows. The international community let them down. We were busy broadcasting the news about the fall of Mugabe, the whole shebang, and then we left when things got murky. If we do engage in these situations, we should finish the job; otherwise, we do more harm than good. It's not enough that there was an “improvement”: either it's a fair election or it’s not.

Chamisa was interviewed by an insightful African correspondent once, who asked if the international community was really interested in creating a lasting, constitutional democracy. There is a feeling that they care more about economic opportunities. I hope this film makes people think about the importance of democracy and how fragile it is, how hard it is to rebuild. Democracy is an organism – if we don't nurture it, it will die, and faster than you think.

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