Jarreth Merz: Bringing An African Election Home

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Jarreth Merz has been on quite a journey since premiering his documentary An African Election at Sundance 2011. He’s taken his film—which chronicles the tumultuous, contentious Ghanaian presidential election of 2008—to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and other African countries. He was invited by HotDocs to be January’s featured documentary in their Doc Soup series. He screened it at the Berlin Film Festival, where he was nominated for the Cinema for Peace award. And this weekend, he’ll be making the trip to L.A. for the Independent Spirit Awards, where the film is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

“The Spirit Awards to me were always like the Olympus,” he says with a laugh. “So being nominated was almost threatening. I thought, ‘That’s not for me—that’s reserved for the gods.’ But the topic is important, and some of the choices we made were important, and people recognized that. It’s a fabulous year, and the nominees are amazing. I mean, just to be on the same list with Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams affected me so much, not only as a filmmaker but as a human being, is amazing. It’s absolutely a gift.”

Surprisingly, though, the journey is one he was initially reluctant to take. You’d think a director would revel in the process of screening a celebrated film at festivals around the world, but not Merz. “I never understood the cycle of traveling with your film to festivals,” he protests. “I always thought I didn’t want it. But then you start to understand that we’re a diplomatic corps, representing something. It’s important that we have that dialogue. And I’ve met so many wonderful people I never would have met. I’ve had so many exchanges that have enriched me, in ways that never would have happened without the film.”

But, Merz says, the best is yet to come. “I think one of the most important parts of the journey is actually about to happen because the film is going back to Ghana,” he explains. “There’s an impending presidential election there in 2012, just like in the U.S., and people will be reflecting on what happened in 2008, on what promises were made and whether they were fulfilled or not. So for me personally, that’s the highlight after Sundance.”

It’s also a homecoming of sorts for the Swiss director, who spent seven years of his childhood in Ghana. “The film started as a personal journey back to the place of my childhood,” he remembers. “I realized, after being away from Ghana for 28 years, that there was a huge disconnect between the reality of what was happening in Ghana and the romanticized picture I had from my childhood. I realized that I did not know what day-to-day life was actually like there. I lived off of the information coming from news sources that we have in the West, and often they feed the clichés. They’re not in-depth. And eventually the question came up whether anyone had ever filmed behind the scenes of an election in Africa? To put the audience right there in the middle of it? And when I realized that I might be able to get access to the players, I knew we had to do it.”

Of course, chronicling an election from the inside is an exhaustive task. And this particular one was so close it looked like it would have to be decided by the courts. Merz’s team ended up with a veritable Kilimanjaro of material. “We had 220 hours of footage,” he says, laughing. But he did have some ground rules about how to find the needle of a story in that haystack: “From the get-go I knew I wanted the film to be linear; I wanted to follow the events as they unfolded. And I wanted it to be a classic three-act structure. That being said, it was three months into editing when we realized that it’s good to have structure, but that this was a massive undertaking. We were trying to really present a country’s political history, to bring the audience on board and let them travel with the story. Someone who knew nothing about Ghana should be able to follow the story. But we didn’t want to overwhelm them with background information. So it was a huge task of filtering. We thought we were going to be done in three or four months but it took a year and a half to make it vibrant and suspenseful and to do the events as they unfolded justice without betraying the film or manipulating material.”

That determination to be true to the material shows in the finished film; there’s an authenticity there that can be felt through the screen. The film has a striking immediacy to it. “Of course, every time you go into the editing process you create the story,” Merz admits. “But it was very important to me that it would be based on the truth. There’s no reenactment in this film. Nothing was staged to make it look a certain way. And I wanted it to be like a political thriller. I wanted the viewer to feel it as I did. It’s my perception of the events, without me commenting with a voiceover. You see through my eyes and through the eyes of the crew, and hear through our ears.”

Bringing the film back to Ghana, during presidential election season, is especially meaningful to Merz because of the impact he hopes the film will have, there and in other African countries. “The key to me,” he says, “is that the film is inspiring. It shows a positive example of elections. And it brings a positive example not only to Ghanaians but to other African brothers and sisters to see that you mustn’t take democracy for granted, but it is possible despite the challenges you’re facing. I’m trying to make people understand that it’s not just a film; it’s a proof that will live in history that this is possible. Ghana, for me, is a mirror of the good that can be done and that should serve as an example to learn from.”

Equally important is the story that the film tells Africans about themselves, the story it tells them about who they are and what roles they can play. “There’s a crippled psyche in Africa,” Merz says. “And it’s not just from colonialism; there are different factors. In my opinion, some of the factors are that Africa is the cemetery of NGOs, that poverty is a business, being a victim is a business, and you will play along to survive. But to me, at some point the African has betrayed the African. And it’s time to move ahead and not see yourself as the all-time victim, not buy into the old image but to take this as a chance to redefine yourself.”

But it’s hard to redefine yourself when there are no role models to imitate. “A huge problem in Africa,” Merz agrees, “is that it doesn’t have heroes any more. Our heroes used to be people like Nelson Mandela. But those guys are old, and some of them are dead. Who’s left? Who do people look up to? And I think in this film we’re trying to create a prototype of something to be proud of. I remember as we screened the film, Africans from all different countries all over the continent would tell us the film made them proud to be African. And I thought, we hit something, we touched a core feeling or sentiment about identity. It’s a crisis people don’t really talk about because we’re always talking about poverty and war. There’s this psyche we have to tap into and understand. There’s a whole new generation in Africa that wants to be seen differently, not as the poor, starving, HIV-infected kids who depend on the outside world. They’re mature; they’re creative; they’re intellectual. They’re just lacking some of the financial tools they need to progress.”

It’s those very young people that Merz most hopes to reach with his African blitz. “The beautiful thing is that we’ve inspired so many young voters and even non-voters,” he says. “We’re working to involve them and get them on board, and they’re creating outreach programs. We’re going to be touring the film, for instance, in Kenya, through different cities. Going beyond the ethnic divide, which is a strong issue in Kenya. We’re trying to bridge that through a new generation that communicates on a completely different level, through Facebook and Twitter. So we’re very engaged in trying to use new media and the enthusiasm of the young generation, who we believe will have the impact in the next 10 and 20 years.”

In addition, Merz is working hard to make the film free to all Africans. “We thought, we can’t sell the film to Africa,” he explains. “We have to give Africa the film for free. We’re working on how to make the film free to download in Africa. Don’t mistake me, we need to make money because we are so independent. The film was made for under $500,000 from our own assets because only a few friends ever believed in the movie. So North America and Europe will have to pay, but Africa will be able to download the film for free. I’m adamant about that.”

The return to Ghana isn’t without controversy; as politicians will do, politicians in Ghana have seized on the film for their own ends. One of the political candidates depicted, who is running again this year, is actually being sued for sexual harassment based on a scene in the film (“It’s ludicrous,” laments Merz). But in the final reckoning, having the film screen in Ghana can’t help but be a good thing. “Some people will think I’m painting a bad picture of Ghana to the outside world, but I think it’s a success story,” Merz maintains. “I want to tell them, don’t bring it down to the level of petty politics, but elevate the message of the film—that Ghanaians can pull this off. In comparison to the American election of Bush vs. Gore, where the Supreme Court decided who the president would be, in a similar situation, with a tightly contested electoral vote contest, Ghanaians prevailed in the end, and decided who the next president was going to be. That’s inspiring. So I’m anxious, but so looking forward to taking the film back to where it all began, and where it actually belongs.”

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