As you can accurately surmise from its title, Jarreth Merz's documentary, "An African Election," is indeed about politics, but it's also about a whole lot more.
The movie focuses on the most recent presidential election in Ghana, the same year, of course, in which Barack Obama was elected president of the United States (and please, anyone tempted to make a comment about us having an "African election" in this country in 2008, keep it to your friggin' self!).
The more accurate parallel to draw, however, is with the 2000 election of George W. Bush, because the Ghana race chronicled with verve here is a very tight one, and the words that come to mind most often as you watch it unfold are "chaos" and "passion."
And that passion really doesn't seem to be for the candidates themselves, in a two-party race in which they seem to be interchangeable. Ideology, in fact, rarely enters into the picture in the race between Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and John Evans Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party.
What Ghanians are clearly passionate about, however, is democracy itself, which is still a relatively new concept in the country and one that is cherished (as Merz pointed out in the post-film Q&A, nearly 80 percent of eligible Ghanians voted in the election.) And just how fresh and fragile democracy itself is in Ghana is reinforced by the presence of Jerry John Rawlings, a military commander who took over the country in a coup in 1981 and later founded the NDC and was twice elected as Ghana's president starting in 1992. The throngs that this African "lion" (as Mertz described him) draws on the campaign trail are as impressive as they are seemingly on the brink of combustion at any minute.
The most impressive aspect of Merz's movie is his access to all the key players in what, if you like political movies as much as I do, really plays out as a thriller, with not just who will win the race but whether the election itself will succeed or descend into a violent nightmare looming questions until the very end. The passions that rule in the "strong room" (you really have to see it to believe it) are all laid out raw, and in the chaos of counting and recounting, charges and counter charges of fraud, it is very reminiscent of what happened in the U.S. in 2000 in Florida.
If you're in the Atlanta area and enjoy political documentaries, it's definitely worth checking out "An African Election" when it screens again as part of the Atlanta Film Festival 365 on Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. And if you're in Seattle (as I know a couple of sometime readers of this site are), this is also set to play the Seattle International Film Festival on May 26 and 27. Check it out, and enjoy the trailer below.