Do you know where your documentaries dealing with the subject of democracy are?
January 6th marks the first year anniversary of last year’s attack on the Capitol. As it happens, pop-culture wise, we’re also in the midst of awards season. And now that filmmakers have had a chance to reflect on the subject, films dealing with the subject of democracy look to make a strong showing in the documentary categories at various awards this year.
The most significant of these, already shortlisted for the relevant Oscar, is Day of Rage from the New York Times. The forty minute documentary from last July, which is free to watch on YouTube, stretches the definition of short subject. But its influence on popular media perception of January 6th is indisputable- as well as some of its less than accurate implications.
Liberal circles take it an an article of faith that former President Donald Trump incited the riot at the Capitol through his speech that was taking place simultaneously. This being a bit of an inherent contradiction- if Trump and the Capitol invaders were in different places, the Capitol invaders could not have been responding to what Trump said. This isn’t an isolated interpretation–Attorney General Merrick Garland in his recent comments appeared to confirm that the Justice Department is regarding the two events as separate incidents.
Day of Rage never actually says otherwise. The big mock-ups of the Capitol plazas and the constant references to the two distinct groups are completely consistent with Garland’s interpretation. But in between sinister references to rioters having radios and the juxtaposition of Trump’s words with the live footage of what happened at the Capitol as events unfolded, Day of Rage clearly implies a connection between the two events- which explains a lot of the frustration and disappointment by liberals that Garland appears to be pulling his punches.
Day of Rage does at least have the compelling argument in its favor of being a well-edited collection of most of the essential events and shocking imagery of that day. On the strength of that footage alone Day of Rage is a strong Oscar contender, and may well deserve that nod. But it’s ambiguous as to how informative the documentary actually is, and how much it’s relying on the viewers own emotional reactions they had on the day in question.
Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwe documentary President, a contender for the long-form documentary category, has many of these same flaws but is far less defensible even just as a vehicle for ongoing footage for one simple reason. The target audience for this movie probably knows absolutely nothing about the Zimbabwe electoral system. And the low-context President, which is almost entirely about epic personalities, does little to explain what Zimbabwe’s democracy is and why opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa has so much faith in it when the country is notorious for Robert Mugabe ruling it with an iron fist.
President only really goes over the most basic details you’re most likely to already vaguely remember. Robert Mugabe was removed from power. This happened not through a popular revolution, but because members of his own political party turned against him. In one of the movie’s more baffling scenes, Mugabe actually holds a press conference where he endorses Chamisa for no obvious reason besides sheer spite against the successful coup in his own party. While Chamisa doesn’t like or trust Mugabe, the mood in his situation room is, on balance, optimistic .
In general everyone in President is very optimistic, despite there never being any particularly obvious reason why they should be. The documentary barely even discusses the military’s role in the coup. In the aforementioned baffling Mugabe scene, Mugabe adamantly denies that military support propped him. He claims to be a popular leader who won his elections legitimately. Despite the obvious absurdity of this statement, Chamisa makes almost identical ones on a regular basis. The underlying assumption is always that Chamisa will win- provided the election is a legitimate one.
The filmmakers obviously edited President to try and appeal to the January 6th moment of the zeitgeist, a cautionary tale about the importance of preserving democracy. Yet nearly all the obvious parallels between Chamisa’s election and our own in 2020 election have Chamisa looking more like the Trump-like figure in that narrative. Early on in President a foreign journalist compares the fall of Mugabe to the 2016 election of Trump or the 2018 Brexit referendum. This is a baffling analogy given how people widely see these upsets as victories for authoritarianism. It’s Chamisa’s supporters who constantly accuse the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission of being corrupt before their election, and who have their claims of electoral malfeasance after the election thrown out of court simply for lacking evidence.
I don’t mean to imply that the Zimbabwe election wasn’t rigged. It almost certainly was. Yet instead of clearly explaining their proof, or even the legal mechanisms by which they could redo the election, Chamisa and his supporters bluntly and directly address the camera, insisting that they’re right and that have faith in the legal system to save them. Their attitude is at best naive and at worst dishonest, but most of the time it’s just transparently ineffective.
Protests against Zimbabwe’s rigged election fizzle out with Chamisa emphasizing non-violence above all else. It’s easy to see why he failed. Chamisa was so non-threatening it’s hard to imagine anyone in Zimbabwe with actual power being even slightly afraid of him. People die in the streets yet director Camilla Nielsson instead chooses to put disproportionate focus on a press conference that’s kind of canceled and then kind of uncanceled, where no one managed to say anything particularly memorable.
Rage against the dying
Contrast this with Day of Rage, a title that evokes fear and loathing however neutral the voiceover might be. The death of Ashli Babbitt, caught on-screen, is brutal and punctuated. The directors also edit away from it so quickly a casual viewer would never have guessed that Babbitt’s compatriots all ran away in terror after her death. The editing quickly shoots over to other Capitol rioters engaged in more sinister actions. Their media presence is powerful. While it doesn’t appear to have been the intent of the rioters to frighten people as much as they did, January 6th is the only real reason anyone has to talk about Donald Trump anymore. It’s also probably the main reason why he’s the obvious 2024 Republican frontrunner despite his toxic association with January 6th.
By contrast, the world has almost completely forgotten Chamisa, and Zimbabwe at large. In a meta-commentary sort of way President does a good job explaining why. Be it in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, what matters less is the exact letter of the law as it is the willingness of people to attack institutions when they believe the institutions have failed them.
But that’s not the message anyone’s taking from President. The critical reception appears to be an unironic echoing of Jennifer Lawrence’s despondent line near the end of Don’t Look Up–I’m grateful we tried. As if making an effort matters when society faces the consequences of indisputable failure. We can add that to the list of reasons why Don’t Look Up’s cynical anti-institutional bent upset critics with fundamental faith in those institutions. If losing with grace accomplishes nothing but ensuring that we forget a person, the behavior of the January 6th rioters is a lot more rational than any of us would like to admit, and Chamisa’s a lot more foolhardy.