Camilla Nielsson on Capturing the Fragility of the Democratic Process in “President”

Camilla Nielsson was always going to have a unique angle to make “President,” but there is a precise moment when it comes into focus just how extraordinary it would be when she found herself off to the side of the stage as advisors to Nelson Chamisa, a presidential candidate in Zimbabwe’s first democratic election in 2018, were scrambling to hold a press conference in the wake of the results being read by government officials who could be justifiably suspected of being partial to his challenger Emmerson Mnangagwa. It would be an understatement to say that eyebrows had been raised amongst the Chamisa campaign when the election commissioners were reporting 100,000-plus differentials between the candidates in districts where there weren’t even that many people known to have voted, and after Mnangagwa, a holdover from the dictator Robert Mugabe’s regime who had overthrown his predecessor with the promise of giving Zimbabwe’s citizens the right to a free and fair election, had clearly gone back on his word, there was a decision to be made as to whether Chamisa, staying in the same hotel as the election commissioners and the dozens of international press assembled to cover the proceedings, would object to the results immediately in the dead of night as both the public was heading to bed and the press was packing up for the evening themselves or wait for a more favorable time.

For an election that may have been allowed to unfold in broad daylight but where votes were counted in the shadows, it becomes strikingly apropos that Chamisa’s campaign ends up announcing their objection as the lights were being turned off in the press room, but Nielsson, who had been around to capture every wild twist in the 2018 election along with her cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen over the course of a frantic three months, wasn’t about to be deterred from where she stood, not only perfectly positioned to catch this single chaotic scene with impressive clarity, but to put an entire election cycle into proper context for the country that had pinned its hopes on having a proper democracy for the first time after being there to witness the contentious drafting of its constitution for her previous film “Democrats.” Besides offering an engrossing chronicle of Chamisa’s galvanizing efforts to restore faith in Zimbabwe’s populace that they could have a leader they chose themselves, holding rallies that bring out thousands and where people climb into trees to get a better view, the film acts as incontrovertible evidence of what unfolded once votes were supposed to be tallied and any hope of a real winner emerging out of an actual count diminished.

After winning a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for verite filmmaking upon its premiere and countless other accolades since as well as bringing on the Zimbabwean-British actress Thandiwe Newton as an executive producer, “President” is now arriving in theaters and recently, Nielsson generously took the time to talk about how she managed to make the film against all odds, starting with the fact that “Democrats” had been essentially banned from release in Zimbabwe and besides whether or not she had the appetite to throw herself back into such a fraught situation, she would need a permit to film again in the country, as well as the complicated role of a filmmaker whose mere presence could suggest legitimacy of a process that was anything but in documenting it and the implications of the election internationally.

Was it an easy decision to continue to follow this story?

No, it was never my intention to make a second film in Zimbabwe, but the first film “Democrats” got banned by Robert Mugabe and his censorship board with such a harsh category that you usually ban pornography. It was labeled not suitable for showing to the public, and that was an idiosyncratic situation given that “Democrats” is a film about the creation of a new democratic constitution for the country that allowed freedom of speech. The first thing they do when the film comes out is that they slam it with a banning. Some of the lawyers that I had filmed writing the constitution for Zimbabwe, who are the country’s finest, thought this would be a good opportunity to challenge the ban in the Zimbabwean court system – of course, to free the movie so that the country where the movie mattered most, but also we could maybe challenge the dictatorship, given that I’m Danish, and we could challenge the ban without me risking being thrown to jail or things that are worse that happens to people who have dissenting voices for the regime. So we embarked on an almost three-year legal process, and in February 2018, we won and the film was unbanned by the Zimbabwean court system itself.

And it was in connection with that hearing that I flew to Zimbabwe for the first time in three years. I had been on a blacklist and hadn’t been able to enter the country, but having to go to court, they allowed me in for 24 hours and in those 24 hours, the protagonist of my first film said, “Mugabe is gone, it’s a different situation. We’re about to have a presidential eviction, please come back and tell that story for us.” And I said, “No, I’m in the middle of another project and I feel it’s going to be too dangerous for me to do this,” but in the flight home, I changed my mind and accepted the invitation.

Even with your legal victory, it must be a difficult to pursue filming when from what I understand, you need a permit for filming in Zimbabwe.

Yeah, you can imagine. Having made “Democrats” and having gone through a legal process of three-and-a-half years, they knew who I was and they knew I was not on their side, so it was a struggle to get a filming permit to do the second film. But I think there was so much international attention on the first presidential election without Robert Mugabe on the ballot, that they felt it would look bad if they denied me access [as] they were trying to create a Democratic veneer around the military coup through which they gained power. So they gave me a permit very shortly before the election, but when we got the permit, the filming process itself was very difficult. We were excluded from most Sanofi press conferences, they didn’t want us around. When they let us in our gear and me and my cameraperson, Henrik Ipsen were searched not one time, but three times as opposed to the other journalists. And sometimes we didn’t even make it into the press conference before it was over, so there was resistance but I have a huge network in Zimbabwe.

There’s a lot of collaborators who are helping me to get their story out anonymously, as you may have seen in the credits and together, we found ways to navigate this. When I came to Zimbabwe to do “Democrats,” this idea of filming politicians so closely as I do observationally, which means that I’m basically around all time, even in sensitive meetings, it takes a long time in a dictatorship where nobody trusts each other to build that kind of trust. But “Democrats” took three years to film, so that’s a long time to establish those types of relationships, and when they invited me back to tell their story about the presidential election, the trust was still there. They had seen “Democrats,” they loved the film, and I think the feeling was that we had done a good job, so when we switched on the camera for the first time a month before the election in 2018, we were there, the trust from the first film was exported to the second film. There are scenes in “President” that were filmed on the very first day, which is rare when you do documentaries. But we could just hit the ground running due to the trust we had gained making the first film.

After covering the constitutional process, did following a campaign require a different approach?

Yes. In making “Democrats,” there was a long, slow process where I had time to get to know people and we were basically the only camera around that covered the writing of Zimbabwe’s democratic constitution. In “President,” there were about 300 international journalists there — all the major networks — for this historical [event] of the first presidential elections since independence without Mugabe participating, so [on “Democrats”] we had the luxury to be able to move around and make lovely, beautiful camera angles. Making “President” was more like a race to get the good positions and get the camera in place. Then of course, we had the fortune of having the behind-the-scenes access with Chamisa and his team and that’s why we could do the work as we usually do.

Also, being so close to the presidential candidate gives you a bit of information in advance, so I would know two days before when a press conference would happen. The other international journalists would know in the morning, so I had a bit of inside information, which would help me to plan the shoot in a better way because we filmed this whole thing with one camera and just a two-person crew operating, besides the network that are helping with the logistics behind the scenes. I do my own sound and there’s no producer on the ground, so the trust and the network we had from the first film really was a big advantage for us in being able to operate so swiftly and basically shoot this whole film in less than three months.

When this must be so intense when you’re on the ground filming, is there anything that stands out when you get back to the editing room that may not have been as evident as when you were there?

Initially, in “Democrats,” we are filming on both sides of the political divide — with the opposition and the ruling party, and as a filmmaker, my philosophy has always been that there are no villains. I’m certainly not the one to create villains or heroes in my movies. As a humanity, we are much more complex than that. There are good people from the ruling party there, and not so good people from the opposition and vice versa. Therefore, I really wanted this film also to be filmed on both sides of the political divide within the ruling party and within the opposition, but given the history of “Democrats,” there wasn’t a lot of interest within the ruling party and President Mnangagwa to have my camera around. So I did approach them, they did consider it and we did get an initial green light, “Yes, that sounds interesting, we would like to participate,” from one of Mnangagwa’s consultants and advisors.

Then I don’t know what happened. Suddenly, it went radio silent. They didn’t answer my phone calls, they didn’t answer my emails. And perhaps when they gave the green light they hadn’t connected the dots or somebody in the Ministry of Information googled me and all communications stopped. And I can understand that, given the three-year court case. I was probably somebody they rather not have there than me being there. Obviously, I can’t say what they were thinking and what were the reasons behind why they gave me the film permit and even allowed me to make President, but the emphasis on the regime to send democratic signals out into the international community was very important for Mnangagwa’s military-style government, [to say] “We are changing course, we are becoming a democracy.”

That’s particularly interesting when you’ve said that you were initially encouraged by early conversations with the international monitors who come in for the election to film with them – there seems to be this running theme throughout of people wanting to present a legitimacy to this election by allowing you to film. Is that an interesting position to be in throughout this?

Yeah, and also as a non-Zimbabwean but a member of the international community, I was very happy when Mnangagwa declared at Davos in 2018 that he would allow international observer teams to come to Zimbabwe and observe the election because Mugabe hadn’t allowed that for about 20 years and thus had a quite easy time controlling the electoral commission and thus, rigging the election in his advantage. So when Mnangagwa said, “We are opening the doors for the international community and for international observer teams to come,” I thought that’s great. And the Zimbabwean people could feel that there was some checks and balances on the process for a change, so it gave them a great confidence to know that the EU had sent a huge electoral observer team and not least the US sent a huge group of people to come and make sure that things went right.

But when things then didn’t go right — and I’m saying this on my own behalf and it may be a little bit controversial — I feel that the international community let the Zimbabwean people down big time on this one because they were there. When things got muddy, instead of speaking out, they took their passports and jumped on the next plane. And then we waited for months to even have a blurry report about whether the election was free or fair or not. You might remember there’s a scene in the film where we’re at the international observer press conference and an American journalist asked, “So, it seems like the electoral commission is not independent, what are you going to say to that?” And then one of the American diplomats [says], “Well, I didn’t give you a short answer before,” weaving around.

It’s a yes or no question, is it independent or not? An election is either free and fair or not. And I think by not calling the election unfair or rigged or certainly not free and fair as it was meant to be, we let the Zimbabwean people down and not only that, by being there and not calling the right shots, in fact, we helped legitimize Mnangagwa’s regime because we were there, we observed, we left, we didn’t speak truth to power. In that sense, Mnangagwa can say, “Well, what’s the problem? There were 40 teams from all over the world here. They observed the election, nobody shouted out so I should be good, right?” So I think we did more damage than good.

And it’s shameful because in that particular election, after so much despair, there was an opening of the democratic space for real change and it never happened. For the Zimbabwean people, the majority who would’ve voted for the opposition, that just threw everybody off. There was so much hope and it turned into despair very quickly and then came the pandemic and all over the world, that has given the opportunity for autocratic leaders to basically just do what they want. They make lockdowns and they pick up any dissenting voices, all the known activists are being thrown in jail, so it’s not just the fact that we didn’t do our job observing the election, we paved the way for the situation in Zimbabwe to get even worse than it was during Mugabe’s days. That’s what I’m hearing from the people on the ground that, “We want Mugabe back.” And you can imagine that doesn’t speak well to Mnangagwa’s new dispensation.

This film has a natural container when the election ends, but I understand you kept filming. How did you know where to leave things?

We kept filming throughout 2019 because we were told that the stolen election was not something that the people were going to put up with, so there were talks about an uprising, and we went on three or four shoots throughout ’19, where these uprisings were attempted by the Zimbabwean people. But the military cracked down so hard of them that it just never worked out. And it sounds wrong to say that I wanted a happy end, but the people wanted a happy end to their own political story, so my reasoning to continue filming was let’s say the uprising had succeeded and an opposition government had taken power, my film would’ve been outdated before it was even released, so that’s why we kept filming. When the uprising never succeeded, sadly, we had to end on the inauguration of President Mnangagwa as a legitimate President of Zimbabwe. But I think we need to hear positive stories. I knew the risk of running into Africa fatigue as it’s sometimes called. The situation is so dire, the colonial mess that we left as colonizers has never been fixed, so I would’ve wanted nothing more than for this film to end on a happy note but it didn’t happen, but at least the world was aware of this theft of this election and what I witnessed as a filmmaker was this, however little we wanted this to be the situation.

That’s the bit of hope I take out of this. What’s it like getting it out into the world now?

It’s been super interesting and I learned a lot as a filmmaker from this release process because when we were finalizing the edit just before the release of Sundance, we were making a film about a stolen election, ballot cheating and election observers and that vocabulary suddenly started to appear in American media. Trump was calling exactly the same shots as Chamisa was and that colored the film in an interesting way because where I saw Chamisa as a hardworking opposition candidate who had a legitimate claim to the election being stolen, I never really trusted Trump’s claims about the election being stolen from him. But we saw our hero, Nelson Chamisa, mirrored in who I perceived to be the world’s worst villain at the time namely Donald Trump.

We did some test screenings after the insurrection on January 6th at Capitol Hill, and the response and the feedback both from critics but also from audience at Sundance were 50-50 — one half would say, “Wow, this is suddenly a very relevant movie for us to see. Zimbabwe is not so far away. It can happen here,” and I think it was one of the New York Times critics who said he was humbled to see the Zimbabwean story in the light of what happened at Capitol Hill. The other half felt discomfort watching “President.” They felt it was suddenly too close to home. Something that usually happens far away that doesn’t relate to you was suddenly something that resonated with them as Americans and they felt that was uncomfortable, so I don’t know if it’s the right time for the release of the movie, but my aim here is obviously to make the world aware that this injustice happened and if you look at the fragility of democracies, not just in America or in Zimbabwe, but in many European countries and many places in the world democracy is suffering or under threat, my hope is that we can watch this movie and we can take this case of the failed democratic process in Zimbabwe and think about it in terms of our own lives. Whether you live in an old or new democracy, a threatened democracy or a healthy democracy, it doesn’t really matter, but it should be something that we all need to think about.

“President” opens on December 17th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and New York at Film Forum.