Opened by scenes of a euphoric crowd, smiling faces with low burning splinters of hope and a candidate filled with buoyancy, the almost 2-hour documentary is a mixed bag of events that led to the loss of the biggest opposition in the 2018 election.
President is a documentary created by Danish journalist, Camilla Nielsson who has a widely recognized portfolio of films that documents human rights abuses, the plight for democracy and social consciousness.
It is but a testimony of the citizens speaking to poverty, hunger, political violence, rampant corruption, empty promises, unemployment and an uneven political playing field.
This chronicles the journey of opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, as he navigated the build-up to a historic and disputed watershed election in Zimbabwe.
From opposition lenses, it trails the political intensity from the infamous downfall of 37-year ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017 to the ascension of acting President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had a brutal battle for popularity with Chamisa.
Midway through, the film draws the spotlight to a disputed vote, with masses marching around the streets of Harare in demand for the protection of their vote and the release of results.
Bullets flying around, sjamboks toasting the flesh, armoured cars patrolling the streets and bloody scenes as some lost their lives in the milieu.
After the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission declared Mnangagwa the winner in a dramatic vote announcement, the opposition launches a historic constitutional court case whose outcome came as the final nail to the loss of Chamisa.
Emmerson Mnangagwa is inaugurated!
A familiar Nielsson sob-stuff
In February 2018, the Mnangagwa government lifted the 2015 ban on Nielsson’s previous production in the country, Democrats, which was banned after the censorship board deemed the film unfit for viewership.
Banking on this promise for change and a better environment in Zimbabwe by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Danish creator hoped to reveal her creation on the local big screen.
Despite having 15 international award nominations and bagging 4 awards, President followed the same path as Democrats, as it was also slashed off by the Zimbabwean censorship board for its politically thrilling connotations after its makers sought approval.
In a letter dated 22 April 2022, Chris Mhike, of the Harare law office Atherstone & Cook, who is handling the case for the Danish filmmakers, received a notice of rejection from the Censorship and Entertainment Control Unit highlighting that the film had some scenes contrary to Section 10 (2) of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, Chapter 10:04.
Section 10 (2b) of the act reads that, “the Board shall not approve any film or film advertisement which in its opinion is likely to be contrary to the interests of defence, public safety, public order, the economic interests of the State or public health.”
Upon seeking further clarification, the lawyer also received another letter dated 16 June 2022, which further clarified that the film in the Unit’s opinion, likely to be contrary to public order.
“Also take note that the “Notice for Rejection” was made to the whole documentary film. The film has the potential to incite violence as the country is now preparing to go for elections in 2023,” said the Unit’s Acting Deputy Director, Oscar Mugomeri in the letter.
Announcing the ban, the production company behind the film said it is depressing that the Oscar-nominated film even though they were not stunned by the actions of the Zimbabwean government.
“These are very sad and disturbing news, however, we are unfortunately not surprised with the verdict, and we continue to fight and challenge the ruling in Zimbabwe’s constitutional court, promising a long legal battle ahead,” said Final Cut For Real in a statement.
As Zimbabwe move towards another much-anticipated election in 2023, political intensity is already gripping the country with instances of political violence during recently held by-elections across the country
Depiction of scenes by the President is not fictitious but rather a true reflection of events that unfolded in and outside of the public eye.
“The ban is a continuation of the ongoing censorship, which negatively impacts the freeness of the electoral environment. The government and even the electoral commission cannot control the narrative around elections, as divergent views are necessary for the public to get a true reflection on the conduct of elections,” said the Elections Resource Center (ERC) Legal and Advocacy Officer, Takunda Tsunga.
An infinite dent in freedom of expression and the media?
“Zimbabwe’s censorship board’s decision to ban the documentary film ‘President’ seems to be less about stopping incitement to violence and more about ensuring that an opposition political leader does not get free publicity ahead of a crucial election,” said Angela Quintal, Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator in one of CPJ’s alerts.
In 2021, Zimbabwe was ranked 130th and in 2022 it was ranked 137th, a decline of seven places on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s World Press Freedom Index.
This shows a downward trend from the positive strides that the country had made on press freedom soon after the ouster of the former president, Robert Mugabe.
“Zimbabwe’s media freedom record is on a downward spiral given the parallels between the policy intentions and the practicalities.
I think the main difference between the Mugabe and Mnangagwa regimes if at all is that the latter is more engaging than the former. Otherwise, the state of media freedom in Zimbabwe has largely remained constricted,” said Media Alliance of Zimbabwe Coordinator, Nigel Nyamutumbu.
Even though the new dispensation instilled a sense of hope for the population and the media as far as freedoms go, Camilla soon lived to experience the two sides of the same coin.
She developed a ‘different kind of fear for Mnangagwa than she did for Mugabe’ as her two films were banned in two different regimes.
Camilla still feels the other side of the contested 2018 elections has not been told to date.
“I feel the state-controlled media has been telling another story, namely the election story from the ruling party’s position. The opposition’s point of view was never really told, so of course, I am saddened by the recent banning of the documentary, as it prevents the people, in the country where the film matters most, to watch it and make up their minds about what happened,” she further said.
The award-winning filmmaker also says she is neither deterred from doing more work in Zimbabwe nor is she demotivated to fight through the courts of law and have her film screened in the country.
“I am in awe of the resilience and determination of the Zimbabwean people to create a constitutional democracy, and I will always be motivated to help shed light on the injustices where ever they are taking place. I think as filmmakers and journalists we have a responsibility to tell these stories and speak truth to power.
“Given that Zimbabwe represents itself as a democratic nation and has a constitution that ensures freedom of speech, we are going to challenge the ban in the courts. In the name of press freedom, I do not accept their knee-jerk decision to ban the film,” she added.
Action groups in Zimbabwe have relentlessly slammed the government for failing to deliver on its promises of reforms and a better operating environment.
“Banning creative and journalistic work has no space in a democratic society. Its archaic practices are hinged on enforcing homogeneity in thought. Citizens should be spoilt for choice and access to various media platforms to make informed decisions. Government should not run scared of alternative and dissenting views, some of which can advance democratic discourse and development in the country,” added Nyamutumbu.
In support, the ERC Legal and Advocacy Officer said such action against the media paints a gloomy picture of openness as move towards another election.
“Free media is an essential tenet to any democratic society. It’s central to public participation in the socio-economic and political development of Zimbabwe. The banning of media has a negative bearing on these factors necessary for true political development. As we approach elections openness and transparency are key for credible elections therefore the ban is definitely of concern,” said Tsunga.
The Committee to Protect Journalists recommended the government respect the constitutional rights of the media to free expression and the public’s right to access information.
“Authorities must immediately reverse this apparent knee-jerk decision and uphold the right to freedom of expression and the public’s right to know at a crucial time in the country’s history,” added Angela Quintal.
Section 61 of the Zimbabwean Constitution guarantees freedom of expression including the freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information; academic freedom; freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity.