TEDGlobal 2011

Jarreth Merz: Filming democracy in Ghana

Filmed:

Jarreth Merz, a Swiss-Ghanaian filmmaker, came to Ghana in 2008 to film the national elections. What he saw there taught him new lessons about democracy -- and about himself.

- Filmmaker
Jarreth Merz' new film, "An African Election," follows the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana from start to finish. Full bio

I was born in Switzerland
00:15
and raised in Ghana, West Africa.
00:19
Ghana felt safe to me as a child.
00:22
I was free, I was happy.
00:24
The early 70s
00:28
marked a time of musical and artistic excellence in Ghana.
00:30
But then by the end of the decade,
00:33
the country had fallen back into political instability
00:35
and mismanagement.
00:38
In 1979,
00:42
I witnessed my first military coup.
00:44
We the children had gathered at a friend's house.
00:48
It was a dimly lit shack.
00:51
There was a beaten up black and white television
00:53
flickering in the background,
00:55
and a former head of state and general
00:58
was being blindfolded
01:00
and tied to the pole.
01:02
The firing squad aimed, fired --
01:04
the general was dead.
01:07
Now this was being broadcast live.
01:09
And shortly after, we left the country,
01:12
and we returned to Switzerland.
01:15
Now Europe came as a shock to me,
01:17
and I think I started feeling the need
01:20
to shed my skin in order to fit in.
01:23
I wanted to blend in like a chameleon.
01:26
I think it was a tactic of survival.
01:28
And it worked, or so I believed.
01:31
So here I was in 2008
01:34
wondering where I was in my life.
01:39
And I felt I was being typecast as an actor.
01:42
I was always playing the exotic African.
01:45
I was playing the violent African,
01:48
the African terrorist.
01:50
And I was thinking,
01:52
how many terrorists could I possibly play
01:54
before turning into one myself?
01:56
And I had become ashamed of the other,
01:59
the African in me.
02:02
And fortunately I decided in 2008
02:05
to return to Ghana,
02:08
after 28 years of absence.
02:10
I wanted to document on film
02:13
the 2008 presidential elections.
02:15
And there, I started by searching
02:18
for the footprints in my childhood.
02:21
And before I even knew it,
02:23
I was suddenly on a stage
02:25
surrounded by thousands of cheering people
02:27
during a political rally.
02:29
And I realized that, when I'd left the country,
02:31
free and fair elections in a democratic environment
02:34
were a dream.
02:37
And now that I'd returned, that dream had become reality,
02:39
though a fragile reality.
02:42
And I was thinking,
02:44
was Ghana searching for its identity
02:46
like I was looking for my identity?
02:48
Was what was happening in Ghana a metaphor
02:50
for what was happening in me?
02:52
And it was as if through the standards of my Western life,
02:56
I hadn't lived up to my full potential.
03:02
I mean, nor had Ghana,
03:05
even though we had been trying very hard.
03:07
Now in 1957,
03:09
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country
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to gain its independence.
03:13
In the late 50s,
03:15
Ghana and Singapore had the same GDP.
03:17
I mean, today, Singapore is a First World country
03:20
and Ghana is not.
03:23
But maybe it was time to prove to myself,
03:26
yes, it's important to understand the past,
03:29
it is important to look at it in a different light,
03:31
but maybe we should look at the strengths in our own culture
03:35
and build on those foundations in the present.
03:39
So here I was, December 7th, 2008.
03:43
The polling stations opened to the voters at 7:00 AM,
03:48
but voters, eager to take their own political fate into their hands,
03:53
were starting to line up at 4:00 AM in the morning.
03:57
And they had traveled from near, they had traveled from far,
04:00
because they wanted to make their voices heard.
04:03
And I asked one of the voters, I said, "Whom are you going to vote for?"
04:05
And he said, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you."
04:08
He said that his vote was in his heart.
04:11
And I understood, this was their election,
04:14
and they weren't going to let anyone
04:17
take it away from them.
04:19
Now the first round of the voting didn't bring forth a clear winner --
04:21
so nobody had achieved the absolute majority --
04:24
so voting went into a second round three weeks later.
04:28
The candidates were back on the road; they were campaigning.
04:31
The rhetoric of the candidates, of course, changed.
04:34
The heat was on.
04:36
And then the cliche came to haunt us.
04:38
There were claims of intimidation
04:43
at the polling stations,
04:45
of ballot boxes being stolen.
04:47
Inflated results started coming in
04:51
and the mob was starting to get out of control.
04:54
We witnessed the eruption of violence in the streets.
04:57
People were being beaten brutally.
05:01
The army started firing their guns. People were scrambling.
05:04
It was complete chaos.
05:07
And my heart sank,
05:09
because I thought, here we are again.
05:11
Here is another proof
05:13
that the African is not capable of governing himself.
05:15
And not only that, I am documenting it --
05:18
documenting my own cultural shortcomings.
05:21
So when the echo of the gunshots
05:25
had lingered,
05:28
it was soon drowned by the chanting of the mob,
05:30
and I didn't believe what I was hearing.
05:32
They were chanting, "We want peace.
05:34
We want peace."
05:36
And I realized it had to come from the people.
05:39
After all, they decide,
05:42
and they did.
05:44
So the sounds that were before distorted and loud,
05:46
were suddenly a melody.
05:50
The sounds of the voices were harmonious.
05:53
So it could happen.
05:56
A democracy could be upheld peacefully.
05:59
It could be, by the will of the masses
06:02
who were now urgently pressing
06:05
with all their heart and all their will
06:07
for peace.
06:09
Now here's an interesting comparison.
06:11
We in the West,
06:14
we preach the values,
06:16
the golden light of democracy,
06:18
that we are the shining example of how it's done.
06:21
But when it comes down to it,
06:24
Ghana found itself in the same place
06:27
in which the U.S. election stalled
06:31
in the 2000 presidential elections --
06:33
Bush versus Gore.
06:35
But instead of the unwillingness of the candidates
06:38
to allow the system to proceed and the people to decide,
06:41
Ghana honored democracy
06:44
and its people.
06:47
It didn't leave it up to the Supreme Court to decide;
06:49
the people did.
06:52
Now the second round of voting
06:55
did not bring forth a clear winner either.
06:58
I mean, it was so incredibly close.
07:00
The electoral commissioner declared,
07:02
with the consent of the parties,
07:05
to run an unprecedented
07:07
second re-run.
07:09
So the people went back to the polls
07:11
to determine their own president,
07:15
not the legal system.
07:17
And guess what, it worked.
07:19
The defeated candidate
07:23
gave up power
07:25
and made way for Ghana to move into a new democratic cycle.
07:27
I mean, at the absolute time
07:30
for the absolute need of democracy,
07:32
they did not abuse their power.
07:34
The belief in true democracy and in the people runs deep,
07:39
proving that the African is capable of governing himself.
07:43
Now the uphill battle for Ghana and for Africa
07:48
is not over,
07:51
but I have proof that the other side of democracy exists,
07:53
and that we must not take it for granted.
07:57
Now I have learned
08:00
that my place is not just in the West or in Africa,
08:02
and I'm still searching
08:06
for my identity,
08:08
but I saw Ghana
08:10
create democracy better.
08:13
Ghana taught me
08:15
to look at people differently
08:17
and to look at myself differently.
08:19
And yes,
08:22
we Africans can.
08:24
Thank you.
08:26
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Jarreth Merz - Filmmaker
Jarreth Merz' new film, "An African Election," follows the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana from start to finish.

Why you should listen

Raised in Ghana, Switzerland and Germany, Jarreth Merz is a filmmaker and actor (you may remember him  in the role of Simon of Cyrene in The Passion of the Christ). As a director, his work is rooted in observing life as it presents itself in all its complexities -- as shown in his latest documentary, An African Election, which follows the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana, West Africa.

Merz's stepfather, a political player on Ghana, helped him get access behind the scenes; then Jarreth and his cameraman brother Kevin followed the presidential candidates in the unpredictable months leading up to the final night. In chronicling the rough-and-tumble process of a democratic election, the documentary becomes a meditation on the dream of democracy itself. The film screened in the World Documentary competition at Sundance earlier this year. Merz is now working on a “political safari” in Africa.

He says: "An African Election challenges the preconceived notion we have about politics in Ghana or Africa without hiding the brutal realities."