CPH:DOX 2017 /Return of a President


The Danish filmmaker Lotte Mik-Meyer has made a documentary about a very important and interesting subject and a region that certainly could need our attention. Return of a President is about the fight for democracy in Madagascar in the aftermath of the 2009 military coup and the influence interests of foreign powers have on the political situation of poor countries in a post-colonial context.

Mik-Meyer has gained access to the diplomatic negotiations surrounding the efforts of making possible the return of the ousted president Ravalomanana to Madagascar from his exile in South Africa, where he has been living since the coup d’état. Through her contact with the Danish advisor to the former president, Jens Thorsen, she has embedded the inner circle of the delegation, consisting of Thorsen, the South African media advisor Peter Mann and the Madagascan human rights lawyer Bakoly Rakotomalala, and has come close to the couple Marc and Lalao Ravalomanana during her five years of filming.

The negotiation process is full of obstacles. The young Andry Rajoelina, in power since the coup as the president of the High Transitional Authority of Madagascar, supported by the military and quite possibly French interests, is firmly opposing to Ravalomanana’s return. Ravalomanana is counting on help from the international community and in particular the intergovernmental organization SADC (the Southern African Development Community), but realizes that larger interests are pulling the strings in the diplomatic game. He finally returns to Madagascar in secret in 2014 and spends 6 months in prison.

Unfortunately Mik-Meyer’s focus is on the intimacy of her relationship to her characters, that is her method and it is, in my opinion, not to the film’s advantage. If, as a filmmaker, you choose to place yourself in your film, it has to be for a good reason, here it only distracts the story. We are getting surprisingly little out of the closeness, I still don’t feel that I got to know Ravalomanana more than superficially. I would have liked more substantial portrait of the man, his (ultra-liberal) political thoughts, more information about his presidency while he was in power (2002-2009). I get curious, what is the story of Jens Thorsen? How do you go from being the manager of the largest dairy company in Madagascar, part of the Ravalomananas’ business group TIKO, to become a political and diplomatic advisor? Who are the other people involved? I would have liked to hear more voices and have a broader view. Paradoxically, had Mik-Meyer kept more distance to her characters, she could have maybe made a more powerful film.

The film ends with what seems to be a reminder of what is meant to be the real subject of the documentary: the people of Madagascar. We see poor women and children in a rundown building. But this short sequence seems misplaced and detached from the rest of the film.

At the world premiere in the Grand Theatre last Saturday, the director was there with Ravalomanana and his wife Lalao (now mayor of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar) and the advisors Jens Thorsen, Peter Mann and Bakoly Rakotomalala. The French ambassador was in the audience, in private, but he insisted on responding to the film. “The film is one point of view!” (and he’s totally right about that) he opposes to France being depicted as the bad guy. While greeting Mr. Ravalomanana, who will be presenting himself at the elections in 2018, the ambassador added: “We used to be a colonial power”, pointing out that that was a long time ago and now the neo-colonial influence is coming from commercial and economic powers (as if these are not also of national interest! For French speaking readers here’s an interesting article about France playing a key role in the Madagascan crisis: Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2012, “Françafrique”, the term used to designate the shady relationship between France and Sub Saharan African countries, had particularly strong ties to the Sarkozy presidency, a key figure, Robert Bourgi, is by the way involved in one of president candidate François Fillon’s many scandals, it just turned out that he has been paying Fillon luxury suits for an amount of nearly 50.000 €..). An interesting moment of probably not improvised diplomacy, right there at CPH:DOX. Unfortunately there was no time for answers or further comments or questions..

Return of a President, Denmark/South Africa/ France 2017. Filmkommentaren: 4 pens.

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Sara Thelle
Sara Thelle
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