Sundance film review: 'An African Election'

Updated: 2011-02-01 10:27


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PARK CITY, Utah - Among the many politically charged documentaries showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the most gripping is "An African Election," which provides an inside look at the presidential elections in Ghana in December 2008.

Director Jarreth Merz spent part of his childhood in Ghana, so he had a personal motivation for tackling the film. He sought to see if democracy could take hold in a continent prey to many oppressive dictators. Merz's access to both candidates in the election and to many other political insiders lends the film credibility and immediacy. The picture is a natural for public television, with limited theatrical potential, though it's more involving than many documentaries that do get released.

Ghana was one of the first African countries to win its independence in 1957, but over the last five decades, it has followed the pattern of many other African countries, with periods of democracy followed by other periods of fierce military rule. If the country never succumbed to the savage civil wars or humanitarian disasters of several neighboring countries, its stability was always precarious. So the film generates considerable suspense as we see the very tight contest between the ruling New Patriotic Party (the NPP) and the somewhat more left-leaning National Democratic Congress (the NDC). Charges of stolen ballots and the threat of violent uprisings leave the outcome in doubt until the last moments of the film.

Merz and his brother and co-director, Kevin Merz, conduct many revealing interviews with the candidates, election observers, and other leaders in the country. Cinematographer Topher Osborn contributes striking images of both urban and rural locales; voters in the countryside are just as engaged in the election results as their city cousins. Editor Samir Samperisi helps to give the film the rhythm of a good thriller. While the politicians emerge as articulate and thoughtful men, one might wish that the film offered a slightly sharper delineation of distinctions between the two political parties. Perhaps the cooperation of the presidential candidates required a certain respectful timorousness on the part of the director.


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