Holy fuck, that was great.
Each scene was so tense, I feel queasy. Covering the 2018 Zimbabwe election, President follows Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, and his team, as they fight the first vote since the deposition of long-incumbent tyrant, Robert Mugabe.
Quick intro if you are not familiar, Mugabe took power at the country’s independence in 1980, and showed every intention of remaining president for life. Corrupt and vicious, he siphoned money out the country’s economy and presided over a kleptocracy. Zimbabwe went from being the bread basket of Africa to people literally starving, and hyperinflation rendered Zimbabwean currency useless. While he went through the motions of holding regular elections, they were marked by fraud and violence, with opposition members arrested, beaten, tortured, and even killed. Elections were consistently followed by murderous repression of demonstrations against the results. And Mugabe might have achieved his aim of being president for life if he had not lived to be so fucking old. He was 93 in 2017 when his own vice president finally turfed him out of office with the help of the army. He was effectively given his pension at gunpoint and told to go home. A fate much too lenient for his many crimes.
For decades, the biggest thorn in Mugabe’s side was Morgan Tsvangirai, who had led the MDC for years, surviving assassination attempts, death threats, arrest and torture. It was with great joy, and optimism for the country, that he saw his old enemy defeated. Tsvangirai had enormous support from the people, who saw him as a man who had proved his character in decades of sacrifice and service, someone who was not simply a politician full of empty words, but a man whose deeds showed his mettle. With Mugabe out the way, he was sure to sweep to victory on a wave of overwhelming popular support.
And then life, like it so often does, kicks you in the nuts.
4 months before the election, Tsvangirai died of cancer. It was a moment of tremendous shock and mourning for the country. And in the aftermath, there was sense of fear and doubt as to what the future would look like now.
And this is where our story begins. President starts with Nelson Chamisa, Tsvangirai’s successor, trying to steer the MDC on the path to electoral success. This is an enormous undertaking. Firstly by filling the very big shoes left by Tsvangirai, and letting the voters get a sense of him as person. Secondly, by harnessing the momentum for change in the electorate that existed before Tsvangirai’s death, and ensuring it translated to votes at the ballot box. And the biggest challenge, is to ensure that the reigning Zanu-PF party don’t steal the election, as they have 40 years of experience doing.
And that is why this film is so tense. Because so much is riding on it. What in another country might seem like a little quibble about ballot layout is the first shots fired in a war the MDC must not give any ground on. And because, when people have suffered so much, and been disappointed so often, the hope they have now, in this first election without Mugabe, this hope is such a precious thing. It must be protected, and people’s faith must be rewarded.
Throughout the film, people have optimism about the possibility for change, while being realistic about the endemic entrenchment of power around the existing establishment. They are clear-sighted about the corruption they fully expect to take place, but hope that the propaganda that has been done around rebranding the Zanu-PF has actually allowed for enough scrutiny that it might actually impact their ability to openly practice fraud. And you feel that hope with them, despite everything you know about how democracy in Zimbabwe goes. For some people, this will be the first time in their lifetime to hold an election without Mugabe, and the first in the country’s history. Despite all the odds we know are against them, it feels like a singular opportunity which has never been had before.
Just a white knuckle ride of a film.