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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: President

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- In her documentary that reads more like a thriller, Camilla Nielsson shows how to destroy all pretences of democracy – in ten easy steps

Review: President

Democrats [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
helmer Camilla Nielsson, who already dissected the changes in Zimbabwe in that 2014 film, must have been the type of child who, upon hearing that everyone “lived happily ever after”, went: “Fine, and then what?”

Unlike the rest of the world, which seemingly washed its hands of the country once Robert Mugabe was finally ousted after serving as president from 1987 to 2017, in President [+see also:
trailer
interview: Camilla Nielsson
film profile
]
, her Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition entry, Nielsson shows that in politics, a happy ending is really just the beginning. And that democracy needs to be built, steadily, as for some, the old ways will always be much more appealing.

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In President, focusing on the events leading up to 2018’s supposedly “free and transparent” elections, Mugabe might be gone – at least until he calls for an impromptu press conference, starved of the spotlight – but his collaborators aren’t, and while they talk a different talk, they walk the same walk. That seems to be the point of the Movement for Democratic Change's leader Nelson Chamisa, challenging Emmerson Mnangagwa, of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front and Mugabe's known ally, but the final result is the least of his problems. “What worries me is the morning after,” it is said here, and in the wake of the “stop the steal” craziness and the Myanmar military coup, unravelling at this very minute, this film could not have asked for better timing.

Nielsson knows her subject, and she wants to explore it, rather than simplify it – while there are some Who’s Who-like descriptions at the beginning, they seem to be a courtesy from the director, who just can't wait to jump into the story. In short, this isn't Zimbabwe's Elections for Dummies; it's a thriller, really. It’s complex, surprisingly easy to follow and not burdened by any added-on comments, as the way she shoots it, it could all have been happening now. And it probably is, in so many different places.

The Danish filmmaker has a terrific eye, going from crowd scenes to fleeting side glances that tell a whole different story to the one shared with the public, covering protests, meetings, troubling phone calls and even moments of hope. At over 130 minutes’ duration, President is unforgivingly, often painfully long, but she crams a whole lot into it – including descriptions of extremely violent incidents surrounding the elections, recounted so drily not because nobody cares, but because nobody is surprised. This belief that perhaps, just one time, “the cheaters won't cheat again” is put to the test rather quickly, and the fact that you brought the receipts doesn’t matter one bit, as no one will speak out anyway – mostly, as stated in one jaw-dropping scene, because people don't want to be quoted. Democracy needs to be built, steadily, but it's also in need of protection, as all it takes is for someone to huff and puff, and they’ll blow your house of cards down.

President was produced by Denmark’s Final Cut for Real, and was co-produced by the USA’s Louverture Films, Norway’s Sant & Usant, the UK’s BBC Storyville and Germany’s ZDF/Arte. Its international sales are handled by Cinephil.

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