Sturdily made and timely, but kind of dull, “An African Election” observes democracy in action as Ghana prepares for its 2008 presidential race and then goes to the polls. Swiss helmer Jarreth Merz (better known as a character actor) and co-director Kevin Merz offer a dutifully well-balanced look at all the candidates, background, issues and events. However, such a drily punctilious treatment fails to excite until the final reels when the result is a squeaker. Stumping at Sundance may make the pic more of a candidate for slots on upscale TV.
The docu’s very title has a generic air, as if for all its specifics, what’s shown here is an example of business as usual on the continent. If that was the intention, then Ghana reps a good choice of subject. The first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence in 1957, this West African country is pretty average in terms of population (20 million), wealth levels (the GDP is $38 billion) and its history of political strife (three republics and five military regimes since independence). More than once, participants tell the camera that the relatively peaceful and honest electoral process that’s seen unfolding here offers a hopeful sign of progress for Africa in general.
Action begins a few weeks before the Dec. 7, 2008. The two main presidential candidates — Nana Akufo-Addo from the more right-wing NPP (which has been in power for eight years) and Atta Mills from the leftist NDC (the party of one-time military dictator Jerry Rawlings, who’s still popular with many) — run around the country making speeches, working the press and saying anything within reason that might get them elected.
Sideline commentators note that there’s not much difference between them politically — both parties advocate agricultural reform and raising standards of education, and the docu doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Instead, the filmmakers emphasize breadth rather than depth by managing to get one-on-one access to both candidates, the country’s head electoral commissioner, Afari-Gyan, and even a still-feisty Rawlings himself, as well as several journalists and onlookers.
The real fun starts on election day, when millions show up at the nation’s very few polling stations to cast their votes, fearful they won’t get a chance to exert their democratic right before polls close. Auds in more developed nations will feel duly humbled to hear stories about people willingly waiting 12 hours or more in line to vote.
The most dramatic and interesting moments unfold in the “sweat box,” the office where the results from the constituencies pour in on faxes, observed by rival party agents Rojo Mettle and Kwabena Agyepong. The two constantly fight and shout at one another, but still profess their friendship through gritted-teeth smiles.
Slack editing makes for a draggy midsection, which isn’t helped by the use of semi-jokey chapter headings that only serve to underscore the pic’s television roots. On the upside, the jazzy, trumpet-heavy score credited to Patrick Kirsta and Ghanaba puts some genuine swing in the pic’s step. Lensing by Topher Osborn and Kevin Merz looks fine and crisp, even in the online version caught.