The list of great documentaries about the political process is not a long one, but its highlights are some true all-time masterpieces: Robert Drew's Primary, from 1960; D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus's The War Room, from 1993. To this rarefied company we must now certainly add Camilla Nielsson's Democrats, an absolute miracle of a film that stares into the dark heart of the sausage-making world of partisan bickering and intra-party power struggles in no less open a country than the Republic of Zimbabwe. The mere fact that Nielsson and her crew were able to snag the kind of access they did with the full faith and support of the Robert Mugabe regime is perhaps the most surprising thing about the film, but it is not the only surprise, nor does Democrats rest on its laurels, having concluded that deep access = high art. This is equal parts thriller, procedural, and unlikely character study, and it's one of the most gripping, accomplished piece of nonfiction cinema of this or many recent years.

It takes a little bit of history to get where we need to be, history that Democrats provides in the form of a regrettable number of opening title cards. But then again, if there's a way of presenting the convoluted nightmare of Zimbabwe politics elegantly, I can't begin to imagine what that might look like. So title cards it must be. The very summary version is that the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Popular Front (ZANU-PF), after 28 years of effortlessly crushing any opposition to President Mugabe, bungled the 2008 elections, with Mugabe winning re-election by a wholly improbable margin, while the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was able to wrest control of the Parliament away from ZANU-PF for the first time since 1980. After a great deal of political wrangling, ZANU-PF and MDC agreed to a tentative power-sharing deal, while United Nations pressure in the wake of the obviously rigged presidential election led to international pressure on the government to write a brand new constitution. And here's we we come in.

Democrats focuses mainly on the actions of two men: Paul Mangwana, a member of Mugabe's cabinet, who served as the main ZANU-PF representative in the constitutional negotiations; and Douglas Mwonzora, a human rights lawyer and top man in the MDC, serving as Mangwana's opposite number. As chairs of COPAC, the committee assigned to draft the new constitutions, they were the primary movers in trying to scrounge together a document that would be at least satisfactory to all parties, which given the almost diametrically opposed goals involved was a bit of an impossible nightmare. The title cuts two ways: watching how a nation with little real democracy in its history struggles to perform the mechanics of democratic nation-building; and more sardonically, how Mangwana in particular attempts to produce a document that appears democratic without actually having to be democratic, since certainly his job and probably his life hinge on keeping any provision out of the constitution that might threaten Mugabe's power in any meaningful way.

Nielsson and her team were right in the middle of all this, capturing a remarkably candid array of moments that suggest that Mangwana especially must have really been that worked up about the constitutional process that he would say and do the things he did in front of a presumably hostile European's cameras. But again, the splendid quality of the fly-on-the-wall footage is by no means the best thing about Democrats, even though it is truly impressive cinéma vérité. At least as impressive and valuable is the way that Nielsson and editor Jeppe Maagaard Bødskov shape all of that material into a crackling, fast-paced procedural. In its running time just shy of 100 minutes, Democrats covers years of negotiating, panicking, annoyance, and the smallest sliver of personal growth, moving with an unabashed narrative strive through thorny real-time events. The filmmakers, aided by the big personalities involved, have done a marvelous job of making grueling politics exciting to watch, while leaving enough of the context in the material that we walk away from a film with a tremendously clear sense of the stakes, a real appreciation for the successes that were eked out, and a deep frustration at how very much more didn't get done.

More than anything, it's Mangwana and Mwonzora themselves that make Democrats so engaging. The film built around them is a character sketch as much as it's a political document, and figures from the disarmingly witty Mugabe on down emerge with great vividness from just a few moments that offer windows into their character. And this falls most of all upon the two co-chairs. We spend a good deal of time watching their moods ebb and flow over the months, with Mwonzora's optimism curdling into outrage and settling at a kind of triumphal resignation that he could win any concessions at all. Mangwana, with Mugabe breathing down his neck, has a far more colorful life over the same period, at one point darting around rabidly to assure the press and his fellow party members that he absolutely did not approve of an overtly anti-Mugabe clause getting into a draft of the constitution, and certainly will see that it's removed. That's a particularly dramatic slice of life in a film that makes equal room for such grandiosity as the moment when Mangwana realises that he might actually be shot before he has a chance to fix things, all the way to the most utterly mundane details of human life (Mwonzora has the "Numa Numa" song as his ringtone).

Above all, Democrats is a tribute the the galling hard work of living in a democracy; perhaps all the harder because it's so young and vulnerable as Zimbabwe, but perhaps not. Nielsson certainly never seems to give credence to the idea that this is some kind of primitive political system, even when the men involved try to invoke that as an excuse for behavior. The suggestion is rather that this is how all modern democracies work, and Zimbabwe is getting its first taste of the unsatisfying deal-brokering and watery compromises that drive so many more mature governments. It's a sober lesson, but the film delivers it with such gusto, through such a fascinating specific case, that Democrats is always a wildly engaging movie, even when it's the most like a civics lesson.