In ‘Demokarasi’, CBC journalist and filmmaker Marie-Claude Dupont looks back at the Burundi post-civil war 2010 elections. The plot is already known; the ruling party CNDD-FDD, heir of the main former Hutu rebel movement, will remain in place and its main contenders will soon leave the democratic debate. ‘Demokarasi’ is a story of broken hopes and persistent violence. The stakes of the second elections in over twenty years in Burundi are simple, and up-country farmers, Tanganyika fishermen and urban shopkeepers all spell them out clearly: peace and democracy. The beginning of the documentary pictures determined candidates and enthusiast electors who closely and critically follow the campaign, in spite of intimidation and political assassinations. Four consecutive elections are planned. The first one is at the municipal level; it is a turning point. Within a couple of days, the CNDD-CDD is declared winner. The main opposition parties claim massive irregularities but fail to have the election cancelled and subsequently choose to boycott the rest of the electoral process. Fear then becomes the leading theme of the documentary and the darker and more cynical faces of the three main actors -the ruling party, the international community and the opposition parties- are revealed. The spiral of violence and arbitrary rule picks up speed and hopes for a truly democratic and peaceful Burundi seems to fade away. ‘Demokarasi’ is an interesting and engaging piece. The filmmaker is sympathetic to Alexis Sinduhije, whose electoral journey from electoral campaign to exile constitutes the common thread of the movie. Sinduhije manages to emerge from the movie as a sort of a martyr for democracy, but the viewer should not forget the other opposition parties and the people of Burundi whose hopes and livelihoods were also tied up in this electoral drama. Here, I chat to Marie-Claude about the content of the movie and its making.
Jean-Benoît Falisse: How did you become interested in filming the electoral process in Burundi? Who funded the project?
Marie-Claude Dupont: I first came to Burundi in 2005. I had just graduated from university and Burundian friends I met in Belgium helped me secure an internship with a local radio station (Radio Isanganiro). I made good friends there and through them I got the opportunity to go back to Burundi to film the 2010 electoral process. I arrived at the beginning of May 2010 and stayed until early September.
Although the project was initially funded, it very quickly became obvious to me that if I wanted the project to live I would have to take it over myself. It became a self-funded independent production. I was the director and, by force of circumstance, I also became the editor and the producer.
The MSD candidate Alexis Sinduhije is a central figure of your movie. Why did you focus on him and not on other, arguably more popular, candidates such as the president Pierre Nkurunziza or the FNL leader Agathon Rwasa?
It was not a deliberate choice. Initially, I wanted to interview all the main candidates as well as CENI officers (CENI stands for Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante, the National Independent Electoral Commission) but two things happened. On the one hand, the ruling party and the CENI never answered any of my repeated requests for interview. Agathon Rwasa, whom we had planned an interview with the day after the gunshot in front of his residence happened, was very difficult to contact. I do not think he did not want to talk to us but the gunfire scared him and he started hiding. On the other hand, my employer, CBC, was interested in portraying one of the opposition candidates. I suggested Alexis [Sinduhije], whom I knew a bit as a friend and fellow journalist. I could have decided that I had not enough interviews to do the movie but I really wanted to tell the story of the electoral journey -and I did so with the material I had.
Three years later, what do you think of the boycott of the electoral process by the opposition (after the first election)? Looking at your movie, it seems everything happened very quickly.
I think it took absolutely everyone by surprise. I remember the day after the municipal elections the opposition parties already contested the results. I talked to people in the field – journalists and friends who worked for the election observation units and the embassies – and I feel no one really saw it coming. Yet, the scenario of opposition parties alleging fraud is a bit recurring in Africa, isn’t it? Was it the only solution? It is rare to have a single solution. Boycott is the one the opposition parties have chosen. They alleged massive fraud, which has not been proven. What emerged from the observers, from the reporters and all, is that of course there were irregularities but no massive fraud. I think maybe it would have been better for Burundi if the opposition had stayed in but it is too easy to judge the situation afterwards. The 2010 elections were not written on a blank page. They came right after the civil war and most of the candidates knew each other; they shared the same roof and fought in the bush for the same causes.
The movie talks about ‘pressures’. Could you feel them when following the candidates?
The pressure was there. It was not only on the opposition candidates, it was on journalists and the civil society too. It affected opposition members as well as sometimes members of the ruling party. Before the elections, there was a lot of tension between different groups of young people from different political parties. The degradation of the electoral process affected many people, not only opposition candidates.
The international community declared the elections valid and fair. Some people say it sent the signal the ruling party was now free to do whatever it pleases. What do you think?
I think the international community, through the European Union, through its observers, through those who came to Burundi, surely had good intentions Yet, I am asking myself, what did they know about the country, its history and what its people had experienced? These elections, right after war, were hypersensitive. Everything was heightened. In addition to that, we know that in Africa, the electoral process is usually a huge shock. Everyone has much to gain, much to lose. The stakes are much higher than in Western democracies; in Burundi, it is well known that the government is by very far the main employer. I am not sure the international community was suffficiently aware of all this.
Election Day was much feared; arrests, pressure on candidates and eventually out-of-control violence were expected. That did not happen. This surely was a big step and the embassies were right to rejoice. Yet, ‘details’ were neglected and could have been used … by the political parties…to their own gain. For instance, on Election Day the European Union said that everything went fine. This kind of comments may seem trivial. It was true that everything was fine -except that the polls were not closed yet. This sort of detail does not convey a message of neutrality. I have the impression that everyone was behind the ruling party, which is not bad in itself, but what if others in the game are being harassed and intimidated? There certainly was a lack of tact and perhaps of diplomacy.
Violence has arguably decreased since 2012. Burundi did not totally degenerate into chaos, contrary to what Alexis Sinduhije forecasted in your movie. Why do you think it is so?
I think that, basically, the majority of the population is no longer interested in following the path of political violence -because of all they suffered in the last decades. The fact that all the opposition candidates went into exile may also have eased the situation too, as the tension created by their presence has vanished. The situation is still very fragile and I hope that, with the announced return of the opposition leaders [following two roundtables with the government organised in February and May 2013], a peaceful and democratic dialogue will be re-established.
Let’s talk a bit about the realisation of the movie now. Was it an easy movie to shot?
It was ‘rock n’ roll’. Although I really enjoyed doing it, everything has been difficult from the beginning to the end. The logistics were, expectedly, very complicated but it was also very difficult because I wanted to be as fair as possible and I had to manage people who desperately wanted to talk to me and others who refused to talk to me. The end of the shooting was especially stressful. I received threats and intimidation, not from the government, but from the people I knew who had the potential to do great harm.
Did you think about a specific target audience or message when you edited the movie?
There was no real target audience. Burundi is a country I love and I wanted to witness the electoral process and testify about it. The public has never been one of my concerns and I tried to do the movie with integrity and honesty, which was hard because I did not have all the material I wanted. I was also interested in the questioning of Sinduhije on electoral democracy in Africa and Burundi, it reflected my own questions and concerns.
Would you like to show your movie in Burundi? Is there a risk that it will be used by politicians?
It would make sense to me to show the movie in Burundi. I did my first screenings in Montreal and Ottawa. Every time, there were Burundians who thanked me and told me that the movie should be seen in Burundi too. This is also the wish of the friends who helped me there. The only question is when and how? Of course, I do not want my film to be used for political purpose but at the same time, once you release a movie, you must assume that part of it does not belong to you anymore.
Recently, politicians in Burundi have voted in laws that limit the freedom of the media. Do you think a documentary like yours could still be made today?
As far as I know, the news law forces journalists to disclose their sources. I think this is an issue everywhere and journalists will always have to fight against it. Also here in Canada, courts or politicians sometimes want you to reveal the names of your sources. Burundi used to have very lively and free media and this law is certainly not good news. As for the movie, we had all the necessary credentials and it was done in a transparent manner -in the sense that everyone knew we were shooting a film about the elections. Could it be done today in Burundi, by a Burundi team? This is a good question.
Your film recently won a prize at the Pan-African Film Festival of Montreal. Did you have the occasion to talk with the (Western) audience about the movie?
I think the Montreal public, with no particular knowledge of Africa (or deep interest in the elections there) were touched by the role the international community has in the movie and the discourse of Alexis [Sinduhije] on democracy. I think there is something that touches not only the intellect but also the emotions in the movie; something about humanity, courage and dignity emerging, and people like it.
What is the future of your movie?
There were screenings at the University of Quebec in Montreal Summer School in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies and in Dakar, Senegal (‘Images et Vie de Dakar’ film festival) last June. Others are planned this fall in Montreal and all over Quebec. I am receiving an increasing number of propositions from festivals in Canada and Europe and television companies. My hope is of course that the film is seen by as many people as possible. I am especially interested in universities and I think the movie could launch good debates with people who study international relations and politics. They are the leaders of tomorrow and it is important to gain a better understanding of the electoral process in democratizing countries.
Demokarisi (French and Kirundi, English subtitles, 71”, 2012) will be released in a few months. The filmmaker can be contacted at email@example.com.