“Democrats,” Camilla Nielsson’s superb 2014 documentary about the tortuous construction of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution, was most riveting as a snapshot of a country still trying democracy on for size, wary of what it saw in the mirror. Studying the troubled coalition government that paired president Robert Mugabe’s long-ruling ZANU-PF party with the more liberal opposition of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, Nielsson’s film posited any progress at all as fragile, easily undone by a volatile political system: Audiences might have left hoping for a more optimistic sequel, but hardly counting on one.
Even so, those who haven’t checked any headlines from Harare in the interim could hardly be prepared for the gut-punch of “President,” Nielsson’s galvanizing, epic-scale docuthriller tracking Zimbabwe’s corruption-riddled 2018 presidential election — presented here as a brazen feat of hijacked democracy to make Donald Trump positively chartreuse with envy. As it premieres in Sundance’s world documentary competition, “President” may hit especially hard with audiences who have recently become all too familiar with talk of stolen elections — as it depicts a scenario in which such accusations are backed by disturbing numeric discrepancies rather than wounded ego and bluster.
Not that Nielsson’s film panders to international viewers with hand-holding commentary or comparisons. Like “Democrats,” it is free of narration and direct talking heads, instead relying on the passive but insistent presence of Nielsson and DP Henrik Bohn Ipsen’s camera to navigate us through a thorny obstacle course of rallies, protests, procedural meetings and, in an urgent and heart-sinking final act, full-blown courtroom drama. Only a hefty 133-minute running time might give distributors some pause, but while “President” presents certain opportunities for judicious cutting, it’s never less than gripping, and will likely reach more eyeballs than its predecessor.
The film begins with a dramatic change of guard in both Zimbabwe’s main political parties, following the 2017 coup that saw veteran dictator Mugabe ousted by his own party, and replaced with his former vice Emmerson Mnangagwa. Less than three months later, Tsvangirai’s untimely death from cancer sees 40-year-old lawyer and activist Nelson Chamisa take over as MDC chief. With the next general election already set for that July, it’s a baptism of fire for the charismatic young Turk, who nonetheless brashly sets out his plan to break ZANU-PF’s stranglehold on power: “He wants to rule us with his walking stick?” he says of Mnangagwa, to whoops of approval at an early electoral rally.
MDC brass believe they have the lion’s share of public support; they also know that won’t necessarily translate to the official vote count, in a country that has previously been plagued by allegations of electoral fraud and rigging by the ruling party. Moreover, the opposition has a tetchy relationship with the supposedly impartial Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, responsible for carrying out the election and delivering the result. The filmmakers sit in on fraught conciliatory conferences between ZEC and party officials, which make for some of the film’s tensest, wittiest material as accusations of unfairness are volleyed back and forth: Rather like Frederick Wiseman, Nielsson has a knack for excavating savage drama from administrative process and politesse.
Away from airless meeting rooms and onto the sidewalk, a national mood of hostility is more pronounced. MDC supporters claimed they’re being bullied and intimidated by the authorities, though as one rally attendee remarks, it’s hard to suppress into submission those who are already failed by the system: “Whether we’re beaten up or we die of hunger, we’re dead anyway,” she shrugs.
These words rather haunt the film when a horrifying climax is reached — and filmed, with astonishing in-the-moment access — in the days immediately following the election. As ZEC inexplicably delays the announcement of the results, to the consternation of the MDC and a restless public, mass protests are met with military fire, leaving six dead and many others wounded; who ordered this rash action is a question that Mnangagwa coyly sidesteps. The more the process is protracted, meanwhile, the more heavily the beleaguered, death-threatened Chamisa’s earlier words weigh on him: “If we miss this opportunity, we are doomed for life.”
Working on a larger and (even) more logistically challenging canvas than in “Democrats,” Nielsson’s filmmaking maintains its poise and intelligence whether negotiating procedural banalities or frenzied panic in the streets. Along with Ipsen and editor Jeppe Bødskov, she devotes as much attention to conflicted faces and layered human exchanges as she does to dry facts, while sheer circumstance gifts the film with scenes as extravagantly absurd and unnerving as anything that could be scripted. A surprise press conference with the bruised, resentful Mugabe might not have Shakespearean levels of grandeur and gravitas, but is captivating precisely because the disgraced leader believes it does: Politics consistently creates its own tragedy and comedy, and this vital, devastating documentary knows when simply to stand in the crowd.