Sunday, May 27, 2012


Ghana, 2008. It's election time again? So what? Well, what was an ancient empire subjugated by Europe in the grab for Africa, decolonised late in 1957 and subjugated to political bloodshed and anger for decades until the coup of Jerry Rawlings left it under a dictatorship that suspended the constitution and outlawed political parties. Once party politics were allowed again in the 1990s, Rawlings ruled it for his two permitted terms and then stood back to enjoy the power without responsibility of a political grey eminence. His old party The National Democratic Congress has never left the field and remains one of the two major parties in the country. The other is The National Patriotic Party. Early on in the piece we are told that there is effectively no political difference between these parties. If either wins you get the same.

Now if you started wondering what your Facebook timeline looked like while reading the above join the club. I have some interest in politics but the process of it tends to make my eyes water. The team behind An African Election know this about me and most of the rest of you. But they can't just make a movie highlighting the dramatic aspects and squeezing it into quasi-fiction because they must also serve their subject matter and provide a pithy report on its events. The way this is done is quite conventional but its conventional documentary making with added concentrate.

First, by a few necessary black and white title cards we learn the salient facts of the case as it progesses (you don't even need to know where Ghana is to watch this film). Second, the key figures of the election, including the "retired" Jerry Rawlings are shown up close and more personally than you'd always want. Third, the commentary comes from media representatives in to-camera interviews which come in easily digestible portions. Last, the most affected group in the country are almost always on screen, the Ghanian people are so claustrophobically present in this film you might think the streets of Accra and everywhere else in the country are so full of animated bodies that there is no possibility of traffic. One warm spot in the film involves Rawlings in his car trying to explain a point of local and international politics and growing so excited about it that it takes him minutes to realise that his car has been stopped by a crowd of his adoring public who ogle him through the windows with huge smiles.

I'm not going to relate the progress of the election as told by this film as it does such a good job of drawing its audiences into its moment and offering a sample of the weight of the events as they unfold but I will say that never have I known a film about a political occasion to leave me with such an organic appreciation of what it was showing me. As far as political campaign documentaries go I'd happily put it up there with The War Room,   the extraordinary film of Bill Clinton's '92 campaign. This one, however, takes us further than the powerbrokers who are, after all, still at the mercy of the crowds around the ballot boxes.

The ballot boxes here are the humble but hot centre of the film. They are surrounded by standover men and gangs that need police in riot gear and even, in one case the presence of a tank to keep things nice. The sound of discharging weapons is a shock initially but soon becomes part of the overall cacophony. They might take their dictatorships seriously in the east coast nations of Africa but when they are given it they will meet the democratic process with a vicegrip. If you are like me and dread the queues at the polling places on election day you should see this film. I needed to.

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