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Laughter of the Damned: A Review of the documentary Democrats

Here, people live in the shadow of a dictator

Nicholas Powers Nov 29, 2015

“Be seen as a man of peace, even if you are not,” the shifty driver smiled, “The game of politics is pretending.” He squinted mischievously at the camera and chortled. He was carelessly arrogant. He knew he had power because this man, this Paul Mangwana represented the Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, a man who terrified the nation.

I was at Film Forum with my friend Vanessa, watching the Democrats. On screen, people lived in the shadow of a dictator and strangely, they laughed a lot. Mangwana smirked and giggled as he shook hands. Whoever was near him, snickered to but it sounded wrong. He laughed down at his listeners as if they were ants. And they nervously tittered, nodding yes, yes. In every scene, it was the same ugly fact. In a dictatorship there is the cruel laughter of those in power and there is the laughter of the damned, who hide fear behind a smile.

One man who didn’t guffaw with Mangwana was Douglas Mwonzora, a lawyer from the opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC. Soft-spoken, he stared patiently from behind glasses at Mangwana as they co-chaired COPAC, the committee drafting a new constitution for Zimbabwe. The freedom of millions of people was in the balance. Yet when Mwonzora went to the rural towns to poll the people, it seemed the future tilted into the hands of a permanent dictatorship.

“The president should have power to pick the judges,” man after woman after man repeated into the microphone. In the villages, everyone anxiously recited the same line. Eyebrows high, smiles brittle, they glanced at the camera. I leaned over to Vanessa and said how scared they looked, how they must be lying to save their lives. She agreed. Telling me that Mugabe had killed his opponents before and how only international pressure kept him from doing it again.

In the next scene Mwonzora called a friend, “I fear the people have been told what to say.” He was right. As COPAC fanned out to the countryside, the secret police told scared villagers their lines. The COPAC co-chair, Mangwana used the political machine of Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front or ZANU – PF to sabotage the new constitution. He had loyalists bussed in to shout down the MDC people, threaten or beat them into the dirt. At one event, Mwonzora pointed to a farmer who lived far away. “How did he get here,” he asked Mangwana, who cackled and patted him on the shoulder.

He could betray the nation with impunity because he was protected by unaccountable power. And this power was embodied in one man. Earlier in the film, Mugabe strolled to the microphone in a hall of cheering fans to announce the beginning of COPAC. He mocked the charge that he was a dictator. “We were elected by the people,” he taunted the leaders of the MDC who sat stony eyed at the table on stage. They knew the election was rigged. Everyone knew it. But Mugabe spread his hands in the air like a salesman. “We represent the people in our inclusive government, don’t we,” he asked sarcastically as party members laughed like jackals.

In a dictatorship, fear molds the human face into a mask that one takes off only in private. Entering a hotel room, Mwonzora asked if it’s bugged. Later his assistant, laying on the bed said, “We are a nation of pretenders. Everywhere you are, you are scared. If I say something wrong I could end up behind bars.” He sighed a long time as if every unspoken word was broken back into air and blown away, silently, safely.

COPAC worked for weeks, months and then years. The meetings moved from the countryside to the city, where MDC had strongholds and people demanded civil liberties. They fought to be heard and at one meeting, a man was killed by Mugabe's supporters. Mwonzora visited the mother, who wept and told him not to give up. He didn't and when the MDC won the debates in the dusty halls of the city, they left with faces shining, hands in the air like prayer antennas.

As the balance of power changed, Mangwana laughed less and less. He panicked, sweated like a hog, scared that he will fail Mugabe. If he does, he might be killed. When he went to a ZANU – PF rally, loyalists called him a sell-out for working on the constitution, pushed and cursed him as he fled in his car.

“You see that,” Vanessa nudged me, “That rally was the only time the director Camilla Nielsson was scared. He lost control of the crowd and she saw fear on his face.” It was true, Mangwana stared ahead, unblinking, barely breathing until they drove out of reach of the mob. After that a strange wind passed behind his eyes. The more he feared for his life, the more he felt a reluctant empathy for those terrorized by Mugabe. “You know, one thing I learned,” he said to Mwonzora, “Is that the people don’t admire ruffians.” Mwonzora smiled sadly and adjusted his glasses.

After years of struggle, Zimbabwe's new constitution was drafted in 2013; it capped any future president to just two terms but allowed one exception, Mugabe himself, who can run again for office. Was it a flawed document? Yes but it enshrined laws guarding the people’s civil rights. On the night when it was hand printed, Mangwana and Mwonzora read the first edition together, they caressed the pages with raw pride and hope. They teased each other about the long journey and laughed the first honest laugh in the whole film.

And at the COPAC ceremony, Mugabe strode on stage as people defiantly sang the name of the opposition party. He waited for quiet and spoke dryly about the new constitution and then made a joke. “They forgot,” he looked at Mangwana and Mwonzora, “Where power truly derives from.” Again the president’s men shrieked and cracked up, slapped their knees.  

Mugabe signed the constitution but very few, if any of its democratic laws are being enforced. Freedom of expression is undercut by the Official Secrets Act. The separation of powers is made hollow by the Presidential Powers Act. The freedom to assemble is stamped out by the Public Order and Security Act. Every basic dimension of democratic life is void. The constitution is a dead dream on paper as the dictatorship lives on.

In the last scene, Mwonzana drove through the capital city, Harare and said, “ZANU – PF is an evil party, presided over by an evil man.” The screen darkened, the credits rolled up. We left the theater and got a cab. On the way home I studied New York’s streets, its traffic lights blinking green and red and yellow. They looked like the Pan African colors.

“How does he even stay alive,” I asked Vanessa, “Does he drink the blood of the young?” She laughed. “I just wanted to kill him,” I said, rubbing my temples.

“You and a lot of other people,” she answered in wry tone, “But he has the army on his side and if he’s killed it will only lead a long violent crackdown. It has to be done through civil society. It’s slow. Painfully slow. But that’s how it happens.”

“Are you going to be safe,” I asked. She was going to Zimbabwe for a conference on HIV and the health gap between the Global North and South, activists were planning to protest but they didn’t know if the police would crack down or not, if Mugabe’s response would be violent or not.

“I’ll be fine,” she said and flew out the next day. Later I got an e-mail from her, showing a cozy hotel with a pool. But I was worried. She was eight thousand miles away and my nerves jumped at every thought of police beating marchers. But isn’t fear how dictators trap us? They don't deserve our obedience. They deserved our ridicule. So I e-mailed her a clip from The Daily Show where South African born host, Trevor Noah compared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to African dictators, including Mugabe. They shared the same megalomania, same psychopathic crazy eye, same manipulative racism. “If Trump wins,” Vanessa told me before she left, “I’m going back to Grenada.”

One by one, I clicked off the website tabs and saw an article about Mugabe’s prosecutor-general, who tried to charge Mwonzora for calling the president a “goblin” during a rally. I loved knowing the mild mannered man from the film had clowned the almighty himself. Supposedly he broke the Criminal Law Act that makes it illegal to “undermine the authority of or insult the president”.

Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, threw it out, said it was a stupid case. Which meant hundreds of other Zimbabweans, charged for insulting Mugabe, were also freed. Including a girl who sent her friend, a naked, photo-shopped image of the illustrious president. I chuckled at the cases, one man called him an “old rotten donkey” and “impotent wife snatcher”. Others wished for his murder.

My friend was surrounded by people openly ridiculing the dictator. In their eyes, he was already dead. Mugabe was a zombie who didn't know his regime was being torn down by millions of jokes. I leaned over the keyboard, typed her an e-mail, “If you hear a crazy kind of laughter coming from the street. It’s going to sound wild. And large. And things will start breaking. It's the people signing their new constitution…”  


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