Thandiwe Newton wants to know why the BFI London Film Festival did not accept “President,” the award-winning documentary she produced about the 2018 Zimbabwe presidential election.
The Camilla Nielsson-directed film chronicles young presidential hopeful Nelson Chamisa’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Pres. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s former vice president who staged a military coup that ousted decades-long dictator Robert Mugabe. “President” takes a look at allegations that Mnangagwa, who publicly promised a fair and transparent election, and his party held onto power through vote tampering and violence against his opposition.
“Every time it gets into another festival and wins another festival and then gets shortlisted for the Oscars, I’m just thinking London Film Festival, ‘Where were you?’” Newton says. “And the reason they weren’t there was because it was the week before Mnangagwa went to Scotland with 100 delegates from Zimbabwe, invited by the United Kingdom. That wouldn’t have been a great way to have him arrive the week before, right? That’s why I think it wasn’t screened.”
In a statement to Variety, the festival said it does not comment on any film’s submitted to the festival, but also said, “Our selection decisions, which are made 3 months in advance of the festival, are based on the merits of the film and whether it fits into the overall texture of the program and not guided by external factors. We hugely admire Thandiwe Newton’s work, her activism and commitment to giving back to the industry.”
“President” has been screened at about 30 festivals since its premiere last year at Sundance. It has earned numerous awards, including Sundance’s special jury award for cinema verité filmmaking.
Newton’s mother is Zimbabwean. “It’s my history,” the Emmy winner says. “It’s also a very beautiful country. And the people—oh, my god—the people are so beautiful.”
Political strife continues in Zimbabwe, but Newton is hopeful the country will see better days. “All it takes for evil to succeed is when good men do nothing. It’s such a classic,” she says. “There’s silence around Zimbabwe that has been kind of a deadlock, but it’s rusted through. The times call for greater transparency. And there’s too much that has been discovered.”
Even so, Newton insists signing on to the film as a producer was not a political decision. “I’ve never wanted to speak out about Zimbabwe because speaking out politically has always been ‘You’re speaking out against Zimbabwe,’” she explains. “That is why I’ve never wanted to get involved because it’s not political. I don’t know enough to comment on who should vote for who. If you don’t live in the country, you can’t say. That’s fucking rude, man. It’s only the people who live day-to-day in the country who have the right to say what is needed.”
She continues, “But my appeal as a human rights activist is this — I would assume that the leader of a country would want to know who is hurting his people. There are mysterious deaths, abductions and torture. I would have thought that the leader of a country would want to know and I just don’t see enough happening to try and discover who is responsible for these crimes. No, I’m not saying it’s Mnangagwa. No one is, but who is it?”