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VOD Review: President

February 18, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

In her absorbing, aptly titled documentary President, director Camilla Nielsson intimately follows Nelson Chamisa, a young populist candidate running in Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential election.

Chamisa is a 40-year-old lawyer running for opposition party MDC Alliance, who stepped into the race when leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was widely favoured to win, died four months before the vote. He is taking on sitting president Emmerson Mnangagwa, the replacement for Robert Mugabe following the country’s 2017 military coup, and the ruling party ZANU-PF that has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

The first half of the film focuses on Chamisa’s grassroots campaign, as he gains momentum with the electorate through packed rallies in fields, vowing to create jobs and address the country’s food insecurity. But the early energy of his inspirational speeches promising change and a new beginning for Zimbabwe, give way to a sense of dread. It soon becomes clear that Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF will try to hold onto power by any means necessary, including using the strong arm of the government to crack down on dissent.

The military leaders have promised that the vote will be held democratically and without interference, with officials promising a “free, fair and credible election.” But Chamisa’s fight to secure a victory for the people through a democratic vote, in a country where every election has been rigged through ballot stuffing, isn’t an easy one. Chamisa and his supporters are left dealing with blatant corruption and military action on behalf of the ruling party, from replacing the head of the election commission right before the vote, to stopping the count on election night and violently cracking down on protestors.

At nearly two hours long, President functions as a thorough overview of the events surrounding Zimbabwe’s 2018 election, as well as a compelling look at the fragility of democracy. Nielsson gains close access to Chamisa and his advisors, following them before and after the vote as they try to mount legal challenges to this corruption, while facing social unrest and bursts of political violence. The result is an engaging, on the ground look at how hard it is to change things when democracy is just a buzzword and elections are easily stolen.

President is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms, and is also playing in limited release at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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