“The game of politics is pretending,” a politician declares just moments into Camilla Nielsson's intimate and suspenseful Democrats, as excellent a documentary about politics as you will ever see. Some of the film's terrifying power is that it might also be about pretending. In 2010 that politician, Comrade M. Paul Mangwana, the former Minister of Information for Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, represented his party in the conference tasked with drafting a new constitution — and building a constitutional democracy out of Mugabe's dictatorship. In the Parliamentary Select Committee (COPAC), Mangwana speaks for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, which places him at odds with the very idea of democracy. His job is to undermine, to ensure that the people's constitution gives the people no power. He smiles for Nielsson's camera and dishes his political m.o.: “To be seen as a man of peace, even if you are not.”
Such astonishments come steadily in Nielsson's film, a doc that plays like the saddest and most straight-faced of satires. At first, Mangwana is so confident that he seems to speak with ill-advised frankness to the filmmakers. He shares that pridefulness with Mugabe himself.
The president's 2008 re-election was so flagrantly corrupt that the rest of the world demanded ZANU-PF share power in a coalition administration with opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai's reformist Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The deal Mugabe struck called for the creation and ratification of a new constitution. Here he is, in the film, addressing his nation at the start of that process: “I want the people to say what they would want. But we are the drivers, and we dare not surrender this to anyone else.”
Mangwana's job, in the lead-up to the convention, is to aid in the fixing of the 5,000 public meetings slated around Zimbabwe to gauge the citizenry's constitutional preferences: The secret police hit the villages beforehand and tell the people what to say. In one case, when the meeting leaders poll the populace, the question “How should judges be elected?” yields a parade of everyday folks declaring, with forced conviction, that judges must always be chosen by a president. You might laugh, but it will hurt. When a newspaper accuses ZANU-PF of foul play, Mangwana shouts on the phone at a reporter: “The free press will feel my fist!”
The film's second half follows the fractious work of the COPAC, which in spite of everything includes reformists like Douglas Mwonzora of the MDC. (And Mangwana, of course.) Mwonzora proves so savvy a foe that the ZANU-PF has him imprisoned on some vague decade-old charge. Mangwana marvels at his naïveté: “I'm in the system. I know how lethal it is, and you can't fight it.” But the convention has momentum, and Mangwana gets outmaneuvered — even accused in the press of conspiring to betray Mugabe.
By the end, fearing for his life, Mangwana has softened, expressing pride in what COPAC has accomplished and insisting to the filmmakers, who have rare and thrilling access to the negotiations, that his role now is to bring change to his party and greater freedom to his country. “What I've realized is that people don't admire ruffians for leaders,” he says, abashed, conciliatory and, quite possibly, lying. Is this more politics? Does he speak with pride of that constitution and its 2013 ratification because he knows, deep down, that Mugabe will never actually deign to obey it?
DEMOCRATS | Directed by Camilla Nielsson