Camilla Nielsson Films History As It Happens in Zimbabwe in “Democrats”



By Danny Peary

Democrats fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  Now it is playing at the San Francisco Film Festival, following strong receptions at the Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs in Toronto. I was pleased it was chosen Best Documentary at Tribeca because it was my favorite film at the festival.


As I watched this unique film, I wondered: How in the world did esteemed Danish documentarian Camilla Nielsson (Good Morning Afghanistan, The Children of Darfur, Mumbai Disconnected; pictured left) get permission to spend parts of three years in Zimbabwe and witness first-hand the creation of a constitution that ostensibly would pave the way from a thirty-year dictatorship to a new democracy?  I’m sure Nielsson, who earned an M.A. in visual anthropology from NYU, would be content with my using the word “witness” to describe her role, but she was also a “participant.”   As she admits, she developed strong personal connections with and eased the tensions between Paul Mangwana of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and Douglas Mwozora of the opposing MDC-T party, her protagonists and the two men in charge of drafting the historic document.  If the late, great Italian director Sergio Leone would have made this film, the handsome, controlled Mwozora would be The Good (although he is more moral and heroic than Clint Eastwood’s character who is “good” by default).  Mugabe, a background figure whose presence is always felt, is The Bad, although he is even worse than Lee Van Cleef’s villain.  Mangwana is The Ugly, which in Leone is a designation decided less by looks than by flaws and jolly humor that makes Eli Wallach’s Tuco likable despite his bad deeds.  As it would is the Eastwood-Wallach coupling in Leone’s classic western, Mwozora is at times like a straight man to his new, always gabby sidekick, Mangwana, who occasionally needs to be reined in.  Both men, who have amazing histories, are fascinating on their own and seeing them together to not establish a comedy team but draft a constitution is a real treat.  What they do together is serious business, true history, but the nature of the friendship that develops between the political foes should give diplomats and democrats hope for the world.  Privy to watching their unlikely bond form, Nielsson was savvy enough to realize that they are more than just historic figures–they are movie stars!  Over breakfast at the Conrad Hotel in New York, during the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the following conversation with the gracious and personable director about her extraordinary documentary.

Danny Peary: Talk about the title, Democrats. If a country has a constitution, does that make it automatically democratic?

Camilla Nielsson: Well, there’s irony in the title because it takes place in Zimbabwe, which, of course, is one of the most anti-democratic places on earth.   When the idea about making the film was presented to me I was very skeptical of the idea of trying to implement a democracy with Robert Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party still in power.  It seemed like a Sisyphus task to introduce democracy while the anti-democratic forces were still in place. It was for me almost a joke to think that this could work out. So the title came very early and I had it with a question mark–Democrats?  I almost want to turn around your question and ask it to American citizens. I realize that in America the word “democrats” has so many connotations that have nothing to do with my movie.  I don’t know if American people read the title and think it’s about the Democratic Party.   In a way I want to reclaim the word ‘democrats” from the U.S.’s Democratic Party brand and reassign it to be a universal reference for anyone in the world who is an advocate for democracy.

DP: Democrats is about the creation of a new constitution in Zimbabwe as a way of establishing a democracy.  When Rhodesia received independence in 1965, it had a constitution, didn’t it, even during all the years of civil war? Then why did they need a new one?

CN: I haven’t read the old constitution, but I know about it was more like a peace document that was formulated in great haste when the British were giving the power back to the Zimbabweans. There were many things that they couldn’t agree on when colonial rule was ended, including land rights, which was a very big issue, and repatriation following the liberation struggle—those things were never settled. It was what could be agreed on, and the Zimbabweans wanted their freedom so they took the constitution knowing that it was a compromise document.

DP: Was Mugabe around then?

CN: He was around, and he was part of the negotiations.

DP: Was he for that one second in his life a decent person?

CN: I think so. If you look at him while he was fighting the liberation struggle, he seems like a very sincere and very likeable man.  He was also very, very smart and had the ambition for a long time to change the constitution because he didn’t want to take over a British formulated government.  But once he got in power [in 1980], he started to receive threats from all sides. I think he realized that the constitution given to his country by the British was quite a handy document to have because it was based on the same constitution that the British used to rule.  So there was a very bad bill of rights, there was no freedom of assembly, and all sorts of things that you wouldn’t think he would have wanted in a new democracy. I think he realized that politically it was a very handy tool to keep his power. So he kept the old constitution and amended it 19 times to reinforce his position, and that’s why he has been able to stay in power for more than thirty years.

DP: Did you film Mugabe making that political address early in the film or was that footage you acquired?

CN: We filmed him.  My DP, Henrik Bohn Ipsen, and me.

DP: How did you feel being in a room with him?

CN: People talk about Bill Clinton appearing in a room and feeling his charisma, but Mugabe’s charisma is something else, I have to say. In the movie, when he enters the room and everybody stands up, there’s dead silence. You can hear the sound of his leather shoes on the floor. That’s as silent as 1,500 people can be. I think on film he burns through the lens, he’s so charismatic. I felt intrigued of course.  He’s a dictator but he’s also an icon.

DP: Did you tell your DP, “Let’s zoom in?”

CN: Yes, of course. And I did sound and moved the boom forward because we wanted to pick up on his rhetorical skills, because he delivers perfect sound bites. He can trash his political opponents and know that he’ll get away with it.

DP: If during his speech, he had looked at you and pointed, would you have felt dread?

CN: There would have been a dread, yes. He did stare at us from the stage a couple of times, probably wondering, who is this white media?  We were the only white people in the room so we were quite conspicuous.  Although we had a permit from his ministry to film I’m not sure Mugabe was personally aware of this documentary being made. I don’t think so.

DP: It was fascinating watching him speak to all his acolytes, and they’re all laughing at whatever he says. Did that strike you as strange considering nothing he said was humorous?

CN: I think that strikes everyone who sees the movie—why are they laughing? There’s a scene in the film where Douglas Mwonzora’s assistant describes the dictatorship, saying “We’re a nation of great pretenders, we’ve been cowed so badly that if you look around, things look normal. But they are not normal, there’s terror everywhere.”  For me, that sums up the type of dictatorship there is in Zimbabwe, because if you just arrive in the capital, Harare, and you drive around the city, it looks like paradise.  Everything is green, the sun is shining, and people look happier than where I live, Copenhagen, where the sky is always gray. So it takes some time to deconstruct the layers. The reason people are smiling is that Mugabe is the type of dictator who just needs to adjust his glasses and everybody knows that it’s time to smile. It’s a very subtle dictatorship, where people are taught to laugh and to smile on cue, and for me that’s an even worse level of deterioration than if you at least have some kind of protest.

DP: I’m sure a lot of us who watch the movie here are envious of you for having such access to a constitution being written in an African country, because we’d have to go back through the centuries to see ours being written and experiencing history in the same way.

CN: The million-dollar question at the Q&As after my film is screened is of course, “How did you have access in a country that has banned foreign media?”  You can’t even get a camera into the country, so to get cameras in and then out was not easy. There’s a huge bureaucracy and two weeks before we arrived, we faxed equipment lists, noting every single XLR cable, every single serial number, to the government, the Ministry of Information. It was all approved, and sent back. If we had arrived short one XLR cable, it would take us another four hours in the airport to negotiate that.

DP: Since it turned out to be so difficult getting access, I’m surprised that you actually came up with the idea to make a film there.

CN: The idea to make this film was not mine but came from a very good friend, a Danish journalist named Peter Tygesen, who lived in Zimbabwe for many years. I think that originally he wanted originally to write a book about the process of the two parties writing a constitution, and then he came up with the idea of making a film.  He pitched it to the production company where I was working.   I’d never been to Zimbabwe, so I used him as a consultant and he’s credited for the idea and for research.  I think he still wants to write the book.

DP: How long did you anticipate you’d be there? Because I know the constitution took two years longer than they anticipated.

CN: It was supposed to take a year and we added a little buffer. We expected a year and a half.  We went back and forth for three years, we made thirteen trips.

DP: Did you film an unbelievable amount?

CN: An unbelievable amount, 300 hours.  Being white, we stood out all over, and people there are wary of cameras, of course, so it was the most difficult shoot.

DP: And what made you go back each time? Were things happening, or were you just following a schedule?

CN: There were times in the process when there was nothing interesting for us to film. After they had the public hearings, there were six months of data analysis and that doesn’t make for a very interesting shoot.

DP: Did someone get in touch and say that you might want to come film something important?

CN: That happened at the end.  At the beginning of the process, they wanted the film to be made, but I didn’t have any direction in terms of deciding when was a good time to be there.  I sort of had to target the right shooting times myself. And I think halfway though, when we got really into the filming and they understood what kind of project we were doing, they started to be the ones calling me back.  Douglas Mwonzora called it “reverse Stockholm Syndrome.”  At the beginning they were a little wary of this camera and this white woman filming everything they did, and at the end they got so attached to me and the project that they called me.

DP: He looks regal.

CN: Mwonzora’s in fact the great-grandson of a former kind of Zimbabwe—a legendary man.  He looks regal. He moves regal. He’s a very elegant.  He has an interesting psychology.  He’s the most-prosecuted man in Zimbabwe’s political history. He has been arrested twenty-eight times in his life, but was always acquitted.

DP: Did he have to face the charges that were brought against him during the process to get him out of the way?

CN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was acquitted just about a month ago. If you’re not a real threat to this regime, why would they care? He is one of the most brilliant people that I ever met. He’s subtle about it, his strategies, but he really knows what he’s doing. Obviously in a documentary like this, I can’t include all the details, but if I had written a book, for me an important thing is the differences in his background and Mangwana’s.   While Mwonzora is almost royalty, Mangwana grew up with a poor father who toiled in a white man’s mine. And I think that dynamic is so much in them, in the way they walk and the way they talk. I guess he would do well in American politics, there’s that saying here—who would you rather have a beer with?  Paul Mangwana has been in power as long as he’s had a political career. He’s in his mid-50s. His brother fought in the liberation struggle and was jailed during the liberation struggle, that’s how he got involved in politics. He’s been Minister of Information for many years, he’s also been the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources.  He’s held many important positions in Mugabe’s government throughout the years.

DP: I would think Mwozora likes everybody, but did Mangwana get to like you?

CN: Paul and I liked each other instantly. I think he liked me because he felt I had an understanding of the impacts of colonial history and that we share some ideas about where the natural resources from the African continent should go, and how they should be negotiated. If you look at the Zanu-PF manifesto of the liberation struggle, I would agree with most of what it said in there, in terms of black people’s rights. I know the story really well, and I think he connected to that. The last thing he said when we first met was, “You talk like a black woman in a white woman’s body.” I took that as a compliment.  There was a chemistry between us that I can’t explain. If there was a wedding, you’d probably seat us and at opposite ends of the table if you knew only our backgrounds and politics, but there was some very special energy between us, a very special understanding.

DP: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t think a Republican could ever be my friend, but on occasion I’ll hang out with one and think, “You know, I like this guy.”  Was it the same with you and Mangwana?

CN: That’s how I felt, and that’s an intriguing experience.  I think it was the same for him: “How, with all my feelings about white people and Europeans, can I connect with this woman?” He’s a representative of the dictator Mugabe, so psychologically we had an interesting process together, I think we collapsed some of the cultural barriers that would usually be there.  He’s the reason we made this film, I have to say. I became less interested in the constitution-making process and more intrigued by the two men, especially Mwonzora’s relationship with a guy like Mangwana because they have such different personalities. If I were to make a fiction movie about the same thing, I don’t think I could have cast a better buddy couple. I met them first individually and discussed the project, and the next day I met them together for lunch, and I was totally sold on the idea because of their dynamic.

DP: Did you explain that to them?

CN: In the beginning, no. But at some point nobody thought drafting a new constitution would ever get anywhere, and they asked me, “Why do you keep coming back to Zimbabwe and pushing this movie?” And then I told them, “It’s about you!” I had a bigger gallery of characters in my head before I started making the movie–there were many more people involved–but I decided to stick with the two of them.

DP: So whether the constitution was actually written or not, you’d still have a movie?

CN: I still thought that I had a movie, yeah. Either a tragedy or one with a happy ending.

DP: Was being female helpful?

CN: I think it was a very big advantage being female. What I said before about the Stockholm Syndrome—we had a bubble, the three of us, and I think what happened is that Mangwana and Mwonzora were under so much pressure from all sides–their parties, the population, the donors, each other—to succeed in drafting the constitution that they appreciated having a woman around who never asked critical questions, who was just observed and listened and was very loyal to them. Also I sort of facilitated communication between them, because there were many times when the process was stalled and they didn’t speak to each other.

DP: Did you bite your tongue?

CN: I had some critical questions that I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to jeopardize anything, so I planned to hold on to them for my final trip.  Then I asked Mangwana a few critical questions.  There’s a scene in the film when he meets with a famous female South African white journalist and she asks him questions.

DP: It seemed to me that she was in the vanguard of international journalists who were observing and saying that everything the Zanu-PF party was doing was not on the up and up and was sabotaging the democratic process.  She wouldn’t back down to him. That’s what I saw as her role, which is different than your role.

CN: She’s a journalist; I am an anthropologist.

DP: Was Mangwana wary of women in the media because of her?

CN: No, no, no. That’s another thing–Mangwana and I didn’t relate as man and woman. We got rid of the categories of being a white woman and a black man and anything that might get in the way of having the kind of relationship that we had.

DP: Mangwana was under tremendous stress because a draft of the constitution called for terms limits for the president and that would have disqualified Mugabe from running for reelection.  He was arguing against that clause, but he was being called a traitor by conservatives and his life was in jeopardy.  What was your relationship with him at that time?

CN: I think comforting, supporting. He confided in me.  Both men traveled through the country, so we’d spend a lot of time on the road and staying in hotels, and there was a lot of free time in the evening and he confided in me a lot, saying things that, of course, I would never put in the film. And that helped developed the special trust that we had.  He’s a former Minister of Information, so he knows what a camera does, and he was very professional about what he said on-camera and what he said off-camera.

DP: Did he realize early on in the film that as a spokesman and representative of Mugabe’s government, that he was a liar and a manipulator?  And if he did realize it, did  it bother him?

CN: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I think he was so ingrained in the system that in many ways he felt that the things he was doing were appropriate. There’s a scene in the film in a Harare suburb, and Mugabe supporters have been bussed in to dilute the opposition vote. I’m sure Mangwana can tell that those people in those hats  and sitting on those benches didn’t look like people from that area. A Zimbabwean can distinguish that in a split second. To him the world looks completely different and he makes jokes about it, and then in the car, immediately after, he tells me, “We’re doing very well, we have structure and when I give an order it comes down.” When he tells me that, it indicates that he didn’t feel that there’s anything wrong with stacking the vote, that’s just how it works. He even says It’s a guerilla party, it’s a military operation and that’s how we operate. It came out of a liberation struggle, a revolution, and it will always be a revolutionary party, that’s how we organize.  Mwonzora is a true democrat in my book; Mangwana can be sort of a democrat.

DP: There’s a line in the movie.  “It was never our intention to have a constitution, or a democracy.”

CN: That’s Mugabe.  Democracy in Africa is a difficult proposition, he says. Because he believes that always the opposition wants much more than it deserves.

DP: Does Mangwana believe that too?

CN: No.

DP: He doesn’t at the beginning?

CN: Not even at the beginning.

DP: But he says that for 33 years Mugabe’s system has worked, so let’s just keep it the way it is.

CN: But I am sure that’s not his position. He even says, “Sometimes you need to change the thinking of your own leaders.”

DP: Well, he says that later in the film. Of course, I didn’t see what he said off-camera to you.

CN: It’s a very fragmented party. There’s a progressive side, and then there’s the old guard. And the younger members actually do want a different kind of system.

DP: I would think that by the time the constitution is completed, Mangwana realizes that a new system makes sense in the new, progressive Zimbabwe.

CN: And I think he is very proud of the constitution, and he should be. He was in the tougher place of the two of them. Mwonzora’s journey was pretty straight-forward. He’s in the opposition, he wants democratic change, he has his whole party behind him. He can sort of only go one way and he feels pressure from only one side. Mangwana has pressure from the opposition, from his own party, and from Mwonzora, who’s a very, very good negotiator, So I think he is the one on the hot spot,

DP: Does Mwonzora ever get anxious, or is he always calm?

CN: The most anxious I saw him is in the film, when Mangwana walks out of the meeting room in frustration because the drafters won’t change the term limits wording. Mwonzora’s worries that if Mangwana fires the drafters of the constitution because of this, they’ll have to start over, and they’ve spent the money they were allotted and the whole thing will collapse. So he says that’s not gonna happen.  That was the most affirmative I saw him in three years. That speaks to his character, I think.

DP: Do you think Mwonzora saved Mangwana’s life by agreeing to the compromise that allowed Mugabe to run again?  Because after that Mangwana is relaxed.

CN: It’s hard to speculate. The thing is, if that clause had stayed in, [preventing Mugabe from running for re-election], Mugabe would never have signed the constitution, and the whole project would have failed. He never would have signed a constitution that would end his own power, for sure. Mwonzora knew that, and I think he just sort of played a high-stakes game.  He high-rolled on this one because Mangwana was so focused on getting that clause out of the constitution that Mwonzora got another two or three things through that he probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  So he just gambled. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done anything to endanger Mangwana’s life, if it came to that.

DP: There’s a great shot of the two of them sitting together right before the constitution was printed, and they are kicking their legs as if they are little kids. I love that.

CN: Yes. They’re both sitting there doing that and you can see they’re totally in sync. It’s that image I used on the poster. They really care for each other,

DP: When the constitution was written and Xeroxed, you were there for that.  Amazing!

CN: That’s a great moment. I think.  There’s a scene in the film where they got the results from the referendum approving the constitution, and it’s a very emotional moment for them because even as they printed out the new constitution, they were never certain it would go to referendum. We were also not sure the referendum wouldn’t be manipulated by the Zanu-PF to go against the constitution. So once the constitution was approved by such a big majority, there was such feeling in that room that day.  They were teary, I was teary. It was such a euphoric moment. We were still editing that scene up to the last moment, and I went through a lot of Kleenex. I was very emotional about it when it happened, and I still get emotional about it.

DP: You’ve surely never experienced anything like it in your life. Who has?

CN: Right. I don’t think I’ll ever make a film as intense and as involved. I don’t think I could. It took a lot of engagement on many different levels.  I think of the scene in the film where Mwonzora meets the people in his constituency, just after the referendum passed.  They’re dancing and he’s greeted with gratitude.  That’s another emotional scene for me.

DP: Do you wish the world knew about Mwonzora, that he’s a hero?

CN: We’re trying to have him travel with the film. He was supposed to be here in New York with me for this festival, as a matter of fact, but getting his conviction overturned took time and getting his visa took too long.   Both of them did come to Copenhagen for the opening.  I wanted them to see the film before we released it, so they came a week before the premiere, when we would finalize the edit, to make sure there wasn’t a scene or a remark or something that they felt had to be deleted because it was too dangerous for them to have it included. I felt I knew Zimbabwe very well at that point, what would be sensitive and what would not be sensitive, but there could have been some things that I thought were completely innocent that could have put them at great risk.  There were some scenes—such as them sitting together on the park bench—I was ready to cut out.  I’m glad I didn’t have to, but I offered. It’s important for the film as well, because if we ended with Mugabe killing the process, it would have been a pure tragedy. I think the final scene where you see that the two of them are still pals after all that happened, and walking through the park together, gives me a sense of hope.  That friendship they createdand the bond they made, may have planted a small seed.

DP: Are they still both at the forefront of the culture, or have they been pushed away?

CN: They have had very different trajectories after the process ended. When we made the film Mwonzora was the spokesman of the party, but now he is actually rising in the ranks.  He’s now the Secretary General of the Movement for Democratic Change. So he’s basically Morgan Tsvangirai’s right-hand man and second in power in the opposition. DP: Basically, Mugabe said, I don’t care what was decided, nothing is changing. So does the opposition party feel it has any power?

CN: Not after the way Mugabe stole the next election a few months after.  It was so blatant. He got 80% of the votes in areas where he would usually get 0%. He got the majority in areas where he had massacred people thirty years ago, where nobody would vote for Mugabe. The stealing of the election was too successful, so it didn’t look credible at all. But since it was accepted, and there was no death, blood, violence—it was free and fair—they got such a big majority in Parliament that they can do whatever they want, basically. I couldn’t believe it. At that point, when Mugabe signed the constitution into power, in front of the world press, I thought, “What a smart move, Mr. Mugabe, because with your history, signing a democratic constitution in the 11th hour of your presidency will maybe give you a better legacy than if you hadn’t.  Maybe people will look at your time as president and as a freedom fighter with a different eye, if at the last minute you turned around and did something good for the country.”  I was looking to go to Tsvangirai’s inauguration party, in fact. I was shocked. Everyone was shocked. I got text messages from Mwonzora and his assistant and from friends and it was all, “What happened here?”   They were so sure they were going to win. And so the opposition completely fell apart in the coming months, they started in-fighting and blaming each other for went wrong  All that stuff. Divide and rule, perfect.

DP: Where could you have gone wrong with this film?

CN: For me the biggest failure would have been if the Zimbabweans didn’t like the movie.  It has been screened in Zimbabwe already, and we’ve tested it with a Zimbabwean audience and no one receives this film better than the Zimbabweans.

DP: Where did you show it?

CN: We had a screening in Harare, hosted by the Danish ambassador. I cannot go back into Zimbabwe because I was arrested on my last trip there–that’s another story. For me, it was important that the people saw the film before we started this international festival tour. It’s their film, it’s their constitution. And it’s very emotional for me when the Zimbabweans see this film and become emotional themselves. For me, the biggest failure would have been that they didn’t see the Zimbabwe that they know, and even worse if I had been accused of having some kind of colonial gaze or repeating another white story.

DP: What kind of transformations have Mwonzora, Mangwana, and you had because of your experience together?

CN: We all went through a great change, most notably Mangwana. And maybe I come second.  I think Mwonzora is the one who stayed most on course. I learned a lot from the two of them, Mwonzora especially. I’m a much more calm, take things as they come, and am not the type of person that I was before I made this movie.   There’s this idea that when you make a film that you can control everything and every day will go as planned– and everybody will be on time–ut I learned very quickly that’s not going to happen, and the more you let loose and stay in the moment the more gifts you will get from reality and things you would never have been able to imagine will happen.

DP: You went to Tisch and lived in New York for six years.  Have you enjoyed being back in New York with your movie?

CN: It had a very good reception here, it’s been quite overwhelming.  We’ve had such great Q&As, good debates. I don’t know if it’s usually like that here, but people have had such strong reactions to the film that we have continued the Q&As in the hallways.  It has been very intense.  Also it has been very sweet because my editor, sound designer, and the production guys came here on their own to be part of this. There’s so much love by all of us in regard to this movie.