Camilla Nielsson’s “President,” a documentary following Nelson Chamisa’s challenge to incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa during Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential race — the first democratic elections since the 2017 military coup that removed dictator Robert Mugabe and appointed Mnangagwa interim president — has been banned in the country in which it’s set. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Mnangagwa’s government has censored the film on the grounds that it “is likely to be contrary to public order” and has the “potential to incite violence.”
Describing the censorship as “a devastating blow to freedom of the press in Zimbabwe,” the filmmakers filed a legal challenge with Zimbabwe’s constitutional court, which was rejected. The “President” team is appealing the ruling.
The winner of Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Vérité Filmmaking, “President” includes details of alleged election fraud and violence during the landmark 2018 elections. The film’s predecessor, Nielsson’s Tribeca award-winning “Democrats,” was also censored, but the director succeeded in getting the ban lifted in 2018, following a three-year legal battle. “Democrats” focused on the rise of authoritarianism during Mugabe’s tenure as well as the political battles surrounding the formation of Zimbabwe’s first democratic constitution.
“When President Mnangagwa removed Robert Mugabe from power through a military coup, he promised the nation and the international community a new democratic chapter for Zimbabwe,” Nielsson stated. “Freedom of speech was one of Mnangagwa’s core election promises, but this outright censorship makes it clear that his words were empty. President Mnangagwa and his administration are crushing freedom of the press and speech with increasing imprisonment of dissenting voices and arrests of local filmmakers and journalists. It is our highest priority and mission to challenge this disastrous ruling in the Constitutional Court.”
Chris Mieke, a lawyer for the “President” filmmakers, said the case is “highly significant to jurisprudence on freedom of expression, artistic freedom, and media rights in Zimbabwe and beyond,” adding, “Our constitution identifies Zimbabwe as a democracy, and consequently, we find this ban to be extremely problematic. This decision flies in the face of the right to free speech. Zimbabwean law provides for a challenge to the decision, and we do indeed intend to challenge it.”
As Nielsson referenced, “President’s” ban follows other attacks on freedom of speech in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean journalist Jeffrey Moyo, a freelance correspondent for The New York Times, “was given a suspended prison sentence of five years for allegedly breaking immigration laws by helping two international reporters obtain press accreditation needed to enter the country. The court ruled the accreditation was fake, a charge denied by the Times,” THR writes. Meanwhile, Zimbabwean author and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga is on trial for allegedly inciting violence, breaching the peace, and spreading bigotry while participating in an anti-government demonstration in 2020. Dangarembga served on the 2022 Berlinale’s international jury, and the festival has publicly called for her acquittal.
Unfortunately, formal censorship of art is nothing new — especially if said art is critical of, or merely questions, its laws, leaders, systems, or societal conventions. In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian love story “Rafiki” was banned in its native Kenya due to its LGBTQ+ themes. The Kenya Film Classification Board believed that the film sought “to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and the Board’s content classification guidelines.” A Kenyan judge eventually lifted the ban for one week so “Rafiki” could qualify for the Oscars. In 2017, India’s Censor Board of Film Certification blocked the release of Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha” after deciding its “lady oriented” story was not “clean and healthy entertainment.” India’s Film Certification Appellate Tribunal eventually overturned the board’s decision and the feminist film about four women’s awakenings and rebellions opened in India.
“President” will air tonight, August 8, on PBS, and be available on demand. It’s currently streaming on Hulu and Disney+ as well as available for rent/purchase on other digital platforms.