The rise of democracy in Africa is an intriguing and relevant subject, particularly at a time when global power dynamics appear to be shifting away from Europe in as-yet-unclear directions. An African Election focuses on the 2008 Ghanaian Presidential elections, giving at least some insight into the intricacies and obstacles facing many African countries in a similar situation.
An African Election is shot unobtrusively, and gives a fairly neutral account of the election run-in, which is effectively a two-party race between the NDC and NPP. The tensions of the election are built up well, as we see some powerful footage of Africans turning out in masses to support their respective parties. However, most of the interviews are with media-friendly party representatives, well-trained in saying exactly the right things for the camera. As such, we get little insight into the parties’ goals, aside from their desire to win the election.
As a debut film, this is a decent effort from Jarreth Merz. The film feels well-paced, as the mood goes from optimism on both sides of the campaign, to unease and tension when the election requires a secondary vote. Merz’s filmic knowledge shines through at points. His camera-work and use of sound borrow handily from the horror genre, as the Ghanaian democratic process appears to reach the verge of collapse. Despite being stylistically accomplished however, the film could’ve used more back-story. The question of how Western ideas of democracy integrate into African history and culture is pertinent to the subject, and not given enough attention.
Despite tensions reaching boiling point, the election gets resolved relatively painlessly in the run-offs. One party wins, another loses. End of. Of course, this is a relief considering we’re watching a documentary about a nation of 20 million people and not a feature film. Yet the simple resolution makes you wonder what exactly the film is trying to say. Perhaps, at a time when Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections were making global headlines for turning to corruption and violence, it was relevant to show that democracy in Africa can work? Still, the film seems to overlook some of the problems of the process (hints of corruption and rough tactics) and portrays the resolution of the election as satisfactory on both sides.
In fairness, the very title of An African Election doesn’t make any sweeping statements about what it is we’re watching. It is a single election in a single African country. The film argues that the outcome should be used as a model for other similar countries, but it doesn’t come to any broad conclusions about how this can be achieved. This is a worthwhile directorial debut, but it gives only a small snippet into the complex and massive issue of burgeoning democracy in Africa.