THIS week I had the good fortune of watching Democrats, a documentary film from Zimbabwe that chronicles the tumultuous writing of the country’s new constitution, in the wake of its 2008 election crisis.
Like any good documentary (and most visual storytelling in general) the most profound moments are not in the big, dramatic scenes.
They are in a fleeting look, a casual remark, in the corners and alleyways of the main story.
Democrats is told through the eyes of the two main characters, members of parliament Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora.
The two were co-chairs of the country’s Parliamentary Select Committee, tasked with writing a draft constitution and all that entails – holding community meetings, collecting views, writing and editing the document, negotiating the wording and clauses.
Democrats was filmed over three years by a crew that followed the two political rivals overseeing the committee, offering a rare, first-hand account of a country’s first steps towards democracy. It has won Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival and Best Director at One World Human Rights Film Festival, among numerous other awards.
Mangwana and Mwonzora, in temperament, political conviction and values, are as different as you can imagine – perhaps this is what creates the strange chemistry between them.
Mangwana, the ruling party ZANU-PF’s man, is a gregarious, goofy character, who laughs easily and cracks jokes all the time – but can also slide, just as quick, into a sulky frown. “The game of politics is pretending,” Mangwana declares, early in the film.
Mwonzora is MDC-T’s nominee, the opposition’s representative. He is the complete opposite – stoic, almost magisterial, whose calm and controlled demeanour even in the face of provocation often only breaks through with the most fleeting of grimaces.
The film is a dramatic portrayal of the intrigues of constitution making, but more important in my view is what it reveals about how dictatorship degrades everyone – especially insiders who benefit from privilege and access to state power.
The film begins with Mangwana confident and in a position of power, as the representative of the ruling party. His party intimidates people and they are not able to give their views on what they want in the constitution. They bus in supporters from their strongholds to shift the tone of hearings. ZANU-PF thugs break up community meetings. Mwonzora is harassed, MDC-T’s supporters bullied and victimised. Everything in the handbook of a dictator trying to look democratic.
But in the end, when Mangwana’s own party turns against him and denounces him as a ‘traitor’, he looks small and defeated. He literally stoops a little more with every passing scene, his shoulders slightly more hunched, his walk just a little bit more ungainly.
In fact, it is his arch-rival Mwonzora who ends up reassuring him and telling him how he can stay safe and alive.
What is remarkable is that officially, ZANU-PF largely had its way in the constitution-making process. President Robert Mugabe remains in power after winning another re-election in 2013, and is free to vie again in 2018.
So, on paper, they had “won”. But the cost of winning is clearly written in the body language of oppressors, if you know where to look and how to notice it.
No wonder then, that the film is banned in Zimbabwe; the censorship board says it is ‘not suitable for public viewing’. Imagine that – a film about something as ‘boring’ as constitution writing: clause this, and clause that.