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'President' captures the thwarted fight for change in Zimbabwe


The new documentary "President" begins at a moment when the impossible felt possible.


ROBERT MUGABE: I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, hereby formally tender my resignation.

SHAPIRO: It was 2018. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who maintained ruthless control of the country for decades, had been pushed out of power by the military.


MUGABE: With immediate effect.


SHAPIRO: His successor and former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, promised free and fair elections.

CAMILLA NIELSSON: There was a hope for a new Zimbabwe. There was a real desire in the majority of the population for change.

SHAPIRO: That's the film's director, Camilla Nielsson. She thought her documentary would center on Morgan Tsvangirai, a longtime hero of the Zimbabwean opposition who had been jailed and beaten and once nearly succeeded in his long struggle to oust Mugabe. But Tsvangirai died of cancer just months before the election.

NIELSSON: And in comes this new, young, unproven Democrat by the name of Nelson Chamisa.

SHAPIRO: So instead, Nielsson became a fly on the wall of Chamisa's underdog campaign.

NIELSSON: And he was in with no funds, no sort of political experience in running a presidential election campaign up against the much more seasoned competitor, Emmerson D. Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe's right-hand man for about two - well, four decades, actually.

SHAPIRO: I also went to Zimbabwe and reported stories about this rare moment after Mugabe was deposed before the election, when people felt able to express themselves freely. And I asked everybody I met whether they thought it could last. Did you believe that it could last?

NIELSSON: I say yes and no. I was skeptical. But then on the final rally that Chamisa held two days before the election...


NELSON CHAMISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NIELSSON: ...There were so many people showing up for this rally that I think in that moment when we arrived with him actually in his motorcade and filmed that rally in Harare just before Election Day, I thought, wow...


CHAMISA: Are you feeling what I'm feeling?


CHAMISA: Are you feeling what I'm feeling?


NIELSSON: Driving down that alley and the greeting of him and the sea of people...


CHAMISA: Hands up for a new Zimbabwe.


NIELSSON: I did have a great hope on that day and that - there was a feeling that this would - this time they would get it right.

SHAPIRO: So Election Day arrives.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Voters lined up well before sunrise in Harare, waiting for hours for their opportunity to vote in this election.

SHAPIRO: That day itself is peaceful. And then what happens?

NIELSSON: Then the opposition starts to gather their own election data. There's been a bit of a history in Zimbabwe, with the electoral commission having sort of prolonged counting when things are not going in the ruling party's favor. So one of Chamisa's sort of new ideas of how to deal with this type of rigging in elections was that he had polling agents at all the polling stations in the country. So he was starting to collect data from all these polling stations, and it looked amazing according to their numbers. It looked like a landslide election win. But the official numbers from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was not coming in.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: People are concerned and worried about the pace at which this is going. Why is it taking so long?

CHAMISA: The counting has been completed in most of the polling stations. I'm sure by now...

NIELSSON: And then the people started to get worried because it was a pattern they had seen before. Also, the international community of election observers started to get worried that things were not right. And they invited journalists and everybody to a press conference in downtown Harare...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The longer the results are delayed in being released, the more questions will be raised and concerns will deepen.

NIELSSON: ...Where they expressed a deep concern with the delaying and the time the counting was taking. And outside that hotel, where the press conference was held, a small group of opposition supporters had gathered.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

NIELSSON: And when we came out of that press conference with the international observers, the whole thing had sort of exploded into a very volatile and very violent scenario.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: I'm hearing what sounds like blasts, Michele (ph). It's definitely blasts.

NIELSSON: Six people, six civilians were killed. The military basically took over the streets. There were helicopters in the air, and police and military were shooting live bullets at demonstrators as well as international journalists. And I think that's where the real government showed its teeth and its real face and the thin veneer of a proposed new democracy that Emmerson Mnangagwa had sort of sold the world collapsed. And the Constitutional Court ruled in September 2018 that the opposition had lost the election. You know, the opposition was shaken, obviously, and devastated that this unique moment sort of slipped through their hands.

SHAPIRO: I want to play you something that opposition leader Nelson Chamisa says in the film just before the voting.


CHAMISA: If we miss our opportunity on Monday, we are doomed for life.

SHAPIRO: We are doomed for life, he said. Do you think that's an exaggeration? Is Zimbabwe, in Chamisa's words, doomed for life?

NIELSSON: I think what he's pointing to with his statement is that after 38 years of ruling by the iron grip of Robert Mugabe, the day after or two days after on voting day, there was a glimpse, a door, an opening for radical change to happen. And he's sort of speaking to the voters that one thing is to show up to a rally, but you need to make it to the polling stations and mark your ballot. And I would say he is kind of sadly right. It was a tragic ending to this historical election.

But if I ask him today, or if you would ask him today if they're doomed for life, I think he would answer no because his success and popularity as an opposition leader, I think, is even bigger than on that day on that stadium. And I think he's very prepared for the next election in 2023 to make sure that, you know, the people's will takes place or whoever has the most votes in the presidential election will take over in the Statehouse.

SHAPIRO: One of the things I think viewers will take away from the film is how fragile any election is. What do you think Zimbabwe's experience in 2018 can teach the rest of the world?

NIELSSON: I think it can humble us. For us who live in reasonably stable all democracies - like, I live in Denmark. I think for me personally, it can humble you about the fact how fragile democracies are and how quickly it takes to destroy them. You know, we were editing this film last January, and we were still editing on January 6, when Trump supporters took over Capitol Hill. And we were watching the violence on CNN at the same time as we were editing "President." And I think, you know, sadly, in that moment, this became not just a film about a stolen election in Zimbabwe. It became a universal story about democracy and the importance of democracy.

SHAPIRO: Camilla Nielsson is the director of the new documentary "President," streaming now. Thank you so much.

NIELSSON: Thank you, Ari. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.