Camilla Nielsson: Zimbabwe reminds us of the importance of democracy

INTERVIEW. Camilla Nielsson is following up her award-winning 2014 documentary 'Democrats' with a new film about Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy. Charting the country’s tense presidential election in 2018, 'President' celebrates the Zimbabwean people’s tireless fight for democracy. World premiere at Sundance.

The irony could not have been thicker when 'Democrats' (2014), Camilla Nielsson’s documentary about the writing of Zimbabwe’s first democratic constitution, was banned by the country’s board of censors. With local support, the Danish filmmaker went to court for three years and won, in January 2018.

In the meantime, dictator Robert Mugabe had been ousted by his own party in a military coup and people were hoping that the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, meant what he said when he promised free and fair elections in 2018. Soon after, Nielsson picked up her camera again and started shooting her new film, 'President', tracking the presidential election through the opposition party MDC.

It took opposition leader Nelson Chamisa "three seconds" to agree to take part in the film. "He had seen 'Democrats' six times and thought it was great. So he was in," says Nielsson, who was met with great trust by the opposition from day one.

It’s worth being reminded why it’s important to have a democratic constitution and separation of powers at a time when democratic principles are under attack in countries like Poland, Hungary and the US.

- Camilla Nielsson

"'Democrats' opened the doors for us to film behind the scenes of something as politically sensitive as a presidential election. While most of the people in the film were new, my cameraman, Henrik Bohn Ipsen, and I found that the trust we had established with the first film was directly transferable to the new one. It has been a huge privilege to look under the hood of such an important and exciting process," she says.

The tireless fight for democracy

The governing party, ZANU-PF, was also approached to be in the film, but declined. What was worse, it took three months for Nielsson to get a permit to film. When it finally came through just weeks before the election, the director wondered whether she would even be able to get enough footage to make a film.

But she did. The election dragged on with a lawsuit questioning the legitimacy of the election, which makes up a large part of 'President'. Witnessing this process close-up filled Nielsson with admiration for the opposition’s tireless fight for democracy.

An election documentary in which you'll actually find yourself on the 'stop the steal' side.

- Variety's Guy Lodge on Twitter

"The opposition movement in Zimbabwe is amazingly resilient. They get beat up so much, but they keep getting back up and fighting on. Not just in the party leadership but in local branches way out in the country, there are people who keep risking their lives by resisting the systems of the regime," says Nielsson, who sees the Zimbabwean fight for basic democratic rights as an important reminder of the necessity of holding on to our democratic values in the West."

"In our part of the world, we take it for granted that we have the right to assemble, freedom of expression and independent institutions, that our election commission isn’t hacked by a political party and that the courts pass down independent rulings. Zimbabwe is a kind of lab, where you can see what it looks like when democracy isn’t working."

"It’s worth being reminded why it’s important to have a democratic constitution and separation of powers at a time when democratic principles are under attack in countries like Poland, Hungary and the US, where Donald Trump just tried to steal the election."

'President' is directed by Camilla Nielsson and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen and Joslyn Barnes with support from the Danish Film Institute. Denmark's Final Cut for Real is co-producing with Louverture Films (US) and Sant & Usant (Norway).

Praise after Sundance premiere

The film premiered to warm reviews in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival (28 January – 3 February), see more at

Also in competition at Sundance is Jonas Poher Rasmussen's animated documentary, 'Flee'. Watch our YouTube interview with the director.