An African Election
- Posted: 1st Mar 2012
- Category: Reviews
- Tags: kate garner,  ghana,  election,  politics,  observational
by Kate Garner
Africa is often regarded as a continent incapable of democratic stability; its political and social history marred by the acts of despotic leaders and repressive regimes. Recent events only reinforce these perceptions: Gaddafi’s well-documented crimes in Libya, Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe, Somalia’s rebel insurgencies, human rights abuses in Sudan. The list goes on. As a result, international communities appear to view African affairs with skepticism and unease; a study carried out by VSO for instance, reported that 80% of the British public “strongly associate” the developing world with “doom-laden images” of famine, disaster, and political corruption. In his latest documentary, filmmaker Jarreth Merz – who spent seven years of his childhood in Ghana - attempts to dismantle such negative stereotypes, challenging deep-rooted notions of Africa as a hopeless and fundamentally regressive continent. Following Ghana’s 2008 Presidential campaign from the official declaration of candidates through to the final result, Merz delves straight into the heart of the matter, gaining extraordinary insights along the way.
An African Election captures the efforts of Ghana’s leading political parties - the ruling, right-leaning New Patriotic Party (NPP) and its main opponent, the liberal National Democratic Congress (NDC) - in equal measure, revealing no proclivity to either side: Instead, Merz focuses on events as they unfold before the camera: the announcement of official candidacies, the crowded rallies, the millions queuing patiently for their turn to vote, the intensity of the ballot-counting process, the public reactions to the winning party. Archive footage confronts Ghana’s troubled past whilst also setting the context for the elections. To deepen our understanding, images of urban and rural locales are scattered throughout to explore the key issues facing both lifestyles today: unsurprisingly, health, education, and agriculture are of the utmost concern. Viewers are shown what they need to know to fathom Ghana’s political and social climate. As a result, the documentary is able to deliver a visually coherent, balanced, and well-researched account of the 2008 Presidential elections, all prejudices aside.
The film’s greatest achievement lies in its honest portrayal of the national mood. A significant part of this is owed to Merz’s wide range of contributors: from the convincing rhetoric of leading politicians, the rational arguments of social activists, to the remarkably well-informed comments made by ordinary Ghanaians, he provides an open forum for all those involved and affected by the elections. Aside from the relentless sound of drums in the background – presumably used to heighten tense moments throughout the film - Merz captures events with little interference from behind the camera. Filming from a position of deliberate impartiality, he and his crew dodge a downside found in so many politically-motivated documentaries. Of course, the question of true objectivity in documentary is problematic, with many arguing that filmmakers influence or distort events by their very presence; that it’s simply impossible to capture reality without some form of creative misrepresentation, especially during the editing stages. Yet even with these considerations, it is clear that Merz goes to great efforts to present as balanced a stance as possible.
Despite reports of voter intimidation, ballot snatching and electoral fraud, democracy does prevail in Ghana. Indeed, when the integrity of the process is called into question, we witness how far Ghanaians are willing to defend their newly established system. They desperately believe in the power of their votes. It is this kind of zeal that is conveyed throughout An African Election; never more so than in the speeches of Jerry Rawlings, former President and founding member of the NDC. In one particularly unguarded moment, he rages against what he terms the "savagery of Capitalism" in the West, damning the reckless example it sets for struggling, less developed nations. According to Rawlings, superpowers like Europe and the United States have increasingly undermined the culture of democracy they supposedly advocate. His hope – like that of many throughout the film – is that Ghana gains the respect it deserves from these elections, leading the way for reform not only in Africa but across the international community. In a time when political apathy seems at its highest – particularly in the Western world – Ghana can serve as an example to us all.
Dir. Jarreth Merz, 89 mins, Switzerland/ USA/ Ghana 2011
An African Election is available to buy on DVD from Dogwoof.
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