(ARISELIVE.com, 2011) Words Carinya Sharples
“What we do we know about African elections other than they mostly go wrong?” It was this rather depressing question that drove director Jarreth Merz to go behind the camera and find out what an African election – the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, to be specific – really looks like on the ground.
The remarkable thing about the resulting film, An African Election, though, is not what goes right or wrong but the unprecedented access Merz and his team have to the two main candidates, their people and (a first for any film crew) the Strong Room – where all Ghana’s election results are sent, where accusations fly and where presidents are made. Eventually.
How easy was it to get the politicians on board? “I think they are hungry to be shown and seen in a different light, bottom line,” says Merz. “They understood very early that this was different … We were embedded in all the major political parties and we built trust over time. So I think they got this sense of ‘they’re not in here to make us look bad’. That wasn’t the case but at the same time I told them they had no control of the footage … I didn’t want to make a political movie, so to speak.”
Director of An African Election, Jarreth Merz
Another point in Merz’s favour was his Swiss-Ghanaian stepdad’s connections to Ghanaian society and family links to the king of Ashante. Merz himself grew up between Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, later moving to the US to study directing and go in front of the lens in hit US TV series ER (as Charles Baruani) and The Passion of the Christ. But it was the death of his Nigerian father in 2007 that put into motion the chain of events that would lead to An African Election.
“I was the first born so I had to attend the funeral otherwise he couldn’t be buried … my brother [Kevin Merz, co-director of An African Election] came and we started a diary – just a family diary – which turned into a documentary called Glorious Exit. And I just realised I didn’t know anything about Nigeria. And then I wondered well, what do I know about Ghana where I spent my childhood? What do I know about Africa? The debates are always about colonialism and neo-colonialism… what about day to day life?” Returning to Ghana in search of his “roots”, Merz instead found a country on the brink of an all-important presidential election – and, quickly, the idea for the film was born.
An African Election begins with just 28 days to go until the elections. The two main candidates are swiftly introduced – John Atta Mills of the NDC and Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP – and the boxing match begins, each contender trying to knock out the opposition and give the crowds something to cheer about. It is the fifth election since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, so the Ghanaian people are not new to this sort of thing. Yet they’re anything but apathetic – something clear throughout the film, from the initial rallies to the vote counting, when crowds of observers watch the election officials hawk-eyed to make sure not a single vote is miscounted. “Politics is embedded in families [in Ghana],” explains Merz. “People speak about politics, they’re engaged. There’s an amazing political sensitivity. They understood very early on that they were the ones to decide, they wouldn’t let the politicians decide.”
Perhaps inevitably – for a documentary, not for Africa – the film cranks up the tension as accusations are made about electoral fraud. A car is suddenly pictured in flames, crowds gather on the darkened streets, rumours spread of “macho men” on motorbikes snatching ballot boxes before they’re counted. Is it real or exaggerated for impact? For Merz, his presence as a filmmaker obviously made him more aware of events: “This was like wow, the shit’s going to hit to fan. Other people were in their homes, they were having dinner. People watched the film and said there was no violence. I think that’s dangerous – we cannot take democracy in Ghana for granted.”
Now the film is out, Merz’s focus is getting it seen – not just at Western film festivals and cinemas but across Africa. When we spoke, Merz had just got back from Zimbabwe where An African Election had passed the censors and was being screened. “Harare Gardens open air was packed,” says Merz. “People were laughing. It was just insane. I think they thought it was an inspiring story, an African success story. It wasn’t just the good, it wasn’t just the bad – people recognised their own political leadership.”
The important role played by the unshakeable Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, has also been commended far beyond African. “I got an email from a Superior Court judge in California who said he was a hero to him and his colleagues,” says Merz.
The focus now is on sourcing funding to take the film to Ghana and planning a “political safari project” to engage people at a grassroots level, using the film as a platform to start debates about democracy in, for example, universities. Then there’s Merz’s planned biopic on the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (who was of African descent) and a documentary on how love is seen across Africa.
So how does Merz think the presidential winner, Atta Mills (surely not a spoiler?), is faring. “I think he’s doing pretty much the right things, he’s trying to stop this conscience of vengeance. He’s not the most sexy politician on this planet, the most charismatic, but he’s trying to reason with his party to consolidate.” With the next round of elections due next year, Atta Mills’s got another fight on his hands.