Saturday, January 30, 2021

Sundance with Abe: President

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Directed by Camilla Nielsson
World Cinema Documentary Competition

It’s a jarring moment in American history to premiere a film about election integrity and efforts to manipulate and delegitimize results in order to preserve power. Though Joe Biden was ultimately inaugurated as president as planned after each step of the process continued to affirm his rightful win, it took a number of Republican leads a startlingly long time to acknowledge it, and many continue to deny its validity. What worried those paying attention was that an established democratic system was being undermined by a dangerous coup masquerading as the preservation of actual representation of the voice of the people.

The resignation of longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2017 marked a crucial turning point in the country’s history. A thirty-eight-year dictatorship was set to be dismantled with the search for a new leader. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s loyal vice-president, is the candidate for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front party. On behalf of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, forty-year-old Nelson Chamisa is determined to defeat Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF, convinced that a groundswell of support for a free Zimbabwe can overcome malicious efforts by those with power to ensure that they can hold on to it.

Director Camilla Nielsson’s last film was “Democrats,” an in-depth exploration of the writing of a constitution for Zimbabwe following the 2008 presidential election. That objective and extremely educational documentary showed what the goal was for the country, and now Nielsson returns a decade later to check in to see how the system could work with Mugabe abdicating his rule for the first time. It’s affirming and inspiring to see Chamisa fight so hard and rally those he speaks to since they do believe in him and what he wants to accomplish.

Like “Softie,” a recent documentary about a liberal candidate in Kenya, this showcases what it means to be an advocate for democratic change in a place where corruption is rampant and there’s no question about whether voter fraud will occur since it is all but guaranteed. Expecting a happy ending isn’t wise, but there’s a real reason to tell this story since it’s a crucial part of history that should serve as a desperate warning to those whose can still recall a free and fair electoral process in their countries. Chamisa is passionate and resilient, but his commitment won’t stop the very real death threats that force him into hiding and the courts that refuse to even consider the alarming discrepancies in reported vote tallies. This is an urgent and very well-made reminder of why speaking out and fighting for what matters even with little chance of success is vitally important.


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