Documentary 'Democrats' explores Zimbabwe's quest for democracy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two rivals attempt to bridge Zimbabwe’s deep political divide by drafting a new constitution in the documentary “Democrats,” which examines the nation’s search for democracy.

The film, which was shot over three years and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, provides an insight into the country’s complex political landscape in the aftermath of the contested 2008 elections.

Paul Mangwana, who is loyal to President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, and Douglas Mwonzora, of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), share a passion for a constitution to take the nation toward democracy after 35 years of rule under one of Africa’s most divisive figures.

“When a country has to write a constitution it’s almost like building a nation from scratch, it’s a huge task,” Danish director Camilla Nielsson said in an interview on Monday.

“Seeing these two men, how they worked together and how they bridged the political divide, I thought there was a lot of hope,” she added.

A constitution was part of a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai after 2008 elections.

Mugabe, 91, is the only leader Zimbabwe has known since it gained independence from Britain in 1980. Western powers have accused him of rigging elections and of widespread human rights abuses.

Mangwana and Mwonzora and their teams traveled throughout the country and held more than 5,000 public hearings to determine what people wanted in the constitution.

“The turnout for these meetings was amazing, people would walk for hours,” said Nielsson. “There was a bubble of democratic hope that things would really change.”

Tension builds when Mwonzora is arrested and detained. The process seems doomed when the parliamentary committee supervising it stalls over language in the draft that would significantly curtail presidential powers, putting Mugabe’s rule at risk.

Mangwana is accused by his own party of plotting a coup to end the president’s grip on the country, and negotiations are moved to a secret location to protect him.

But the two party leaders break the impasse and deliver a constitution. Mugabe signed it into law in 2013, though many of its provisions were never implemented, according to Nielsson.

In 2013, Mugabe won a fifth term as president in an election that was endorsed as free by African observers but denounced as fraudulent by the opposition.

“One of the things we don’t understand in the West is that Mugabe still has a lot of support. He’s a hero to a very large number of people in the African continent,” said Nielsson.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Alan Crosby