The government of Zimbabwe has banned “President,” Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary about the African nation’s corrupt 2018 presidential election, Variety can exclusively reveal.
In a letter dated June 16, the country’s censorship board slapped a ban on the Sundance prize-winning documentary, insisting that it “has the potential to incite violence” as Zimbabwe gears up for presidential elections in 2023.
The filmmakers are now challenging the ruling in Zimbabwe’s constitutional court, promising a long legal battle ahead.
“President” is the follow-up to Nielsson’s critically acclaimed “Democrats,” which chronicled the laborious construction of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. It captures Zimbabwe at a crossroads, as it prepares for its first election since the ouster of Robert Mugabe, who was forced from power after nearly four decades in the wake of a 2017 military coup.
The film follows opposition leader Nelson Chamisa as he challenges the dictator’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, while trying to undo the corrupt legacy of Mugabe’s reign. Deftly moving from raucous political rallies to drab meeting rooms to the halls of the highest court in the land, Nielsson and DoP Henrik Bohn Ipsen follow the dwindling hopes of the opposition party as a systemic campaign of rigging, intimidation, fraud and outright violence — capped by a harrowing crackdown on a post-election protest that left six dead — enables the ruling ZANU-PF party to claim an ill-gotten victory.
“President” will be released across the U.S. on PBS’ award-winning POV documentary series on Aug. 8.
Speaking to Variety from Copenhagen, Nielsson described the film as a “testimony to the injustice of a stolen election.” Oscar-nominated producer Signe Byrge Sørensen (“The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence”) said the ban is the latest example of a growing crackdown on dissent by the Zimbabwean government, adding: “They’re worried about people seeing with their own eyes what’s happening.”
Chris Mhike, of the Harare law office Atherstone & Cook, who is handling the case for the Danish filmmakers, has filed a challenge to the censorship board’s ruling in the constitutional court. In a statement provided to Variety, he said: “Our constitution identifies Zimbabwe as a democracy. Consequently, we find this ban to be extremely disappointing.” The board’s decision, he added, “flies in the face of the democratic tradition of free speech.”
Nielsson had high hopes when she returned to Zimbabwe to film “President,” which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. “Zimbabwe had been under Mugabe’s rule since independence in 1980,” she said. “When he was removed in a military coup, there was so much hope among the entire population that there was a time for change now, for democratic winds to finally arrive in the country. We were privileged and humbled by being able to tell this story.”
“President” won a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for verité filmmaking at Sundance. Variety’s Guy Lodge called the “vital, devastating documentary” a “galvanizing, epic-scale docuthriller,” describing it as “another essential chapter in Zimbabwe’s long, endlessly sidetracked road to democracy.”
The film continues a nearly decade-long chronicling of Zimbabwe’s democratic transition for Nielsson, whose previous film, “Democrats,” was also banned by the government when it was released in 2015. The decision was ultimately overturned by Zimbabwe’s high court after a three-year legal battle.
In neither instance was the censorship board obliged by law to explain its ruling. Nielsson referenced a government claim that the film threatened to “incite violence and undermine the state” ahead of next year’s elections, dryly noting: “Basically, to create a revolution.”
Four years ago, former vice president Mnangagwa came to power amid high hopes that he could reverse decades of hardline rule under the strongman Mugabe and bring Zimbabwe back from the brink of economic collapse. But a man dubbed “the crocodile” because of his ruthlessness and political cunning has instead presided over an economy in freefall, while failing to deliver on promised reforms and ruthlessly quashing dissent.
In July 2020, the author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga (“I Want a Wedding Dress”) was arrested at a protest in Harare along with journalist Julie Barnes, where both were calling for the release of journalists and for institutional reforms. Earlier this year, the Berlin International Film Festival called for their acquittal on charges of inciting public violence, disturbing the peace and bigotry, and violating COVID regulations. A freelance reporter for the New York Times, Jason Moyo, was also convicted this year of breaching the country’s immigration laws on what were widely seen as politically motivated charges.
“The political climate is more brutal than during Mugabe’s era,” said Nielsson. “It was unbelievable to imagine five or six years ago that the post-Mugabe regime would be more brutal, but the number of arrests of journalists, human-rights activists, the number of killings of dissenting voices [has increased].” She added: “I don’t know if I will go back to Zimbabwe until this [case] is resolved. I have a different kind of fear for [Mnangagwa] than I did for Mugabe.”
Despite the worsening climate, the filmmakers said that the move to take their case to the constitutional court would itself represent a victory, regardless of the outcome. “If we can win the case — and even if we don’t win the case — the paper trail of fighting these battles is still creating a legal precedent that is important for future generations of journalists and filmmakers in Zimbabwe,” said Nielsson. “It will create a paper trail about the illegal acts of the current government.”
Byrge added that the legal battle only underscores the universal message at the heart of “President,” at a time when democratic norms around the world appear to be on shaky ground. “Democracies everywhere are so precious,” she said. “This film is extremely important for Zimbabwe, but it’s also important for the rest of us to remember what it is that democracy really is and how important it is and how wrong it can go once we lose it.”