Review: ‘What is Democracy?’

Astra Taylor takes a Socratic approach to life’s questions

8 mins read

What is Democracy?
(Canada, 107 min.)
Dir. Astra Taylor

If Astra Taylor wanted to find some easy answers, she could have travelled the world and asked people, “What is a lemon?” Her interviews might have yielded answers such as: “It’s that yellow fruit,” or “It’s a tangy citrus,” or “It’s the basis of lemonade,” or “It’s that thing I slice into wedges and serve with a vodka tonic.” Those answers would all be fair, but even then, someone would have inevitably responded, “It’s that thing I slice into wedges and serve with a gin and tonic.” That interviewee would, of course, be wrong, but in a free and democratic society, people are free to garnish their cocktails with whatever they like. In a democracy, the majority of the people (hypothetically) set the course while the people in the minority inspire others to question it.

Taylor isn’t really looking for answers. She’s more interested in questions. Her approach to the thought-provoking What is Democracy? suggests that she thinks democracy works (ish), but that it has a lot of kinks that need working out. Taylor asks everyone she encounters what they find democracy to be and gives equal weight to a wide-ranging roster of participants. By surveying the field and including the opinions of people from various social, cultural, and economic backgrounds, there is something inherently democratic about her process.

What is Democracy? sees Taylor adopt a Socratic line of questioning to the film’s titular query. The film visits hallowed grounds of social movements as Taylor goes to Athens to wax philosophical with some deep thinkers in the birthplace of democracy. She ponders the evolution of capitalism while analyzing Italian frescoes with Silvia Federici. In the USA, she visits a barbershop where an ex-con unpacks the permutations of enslavement that allow a powerful nation to perpetuate a practice that many people thought was abolished over 150 years ago. In classrooms, Taylor chats with students about the implications of cold lunches and deadbeat teachers, while conversations with emergency room physicians unpack the social inequalities that breed violence in a capitalist society. Circle back to Greece and she finds stories about democracy turned inside out when the people voted against a bailout from the European Union only to have their elected leaders ignore the majority. Refugees, also in Greece, find themselves stranded between death by tyrannical militants in Syria and the purgatory created by the exclusionary practices of a democratic society dealing with the mess it made.

Taylor loosely shapes the film with quotes from Plato’s Republic and draws upon the ancient texts to reflect upon the many pressing matters of the day. Her conversations with the film’s many talking heads, including Cornel West and Wendy Brown, draw upon Rousseau and other deep thinkers as the academics unpack the pros and many cons of democracy in contemporary society. Taylor’s participants offer a metaphor for the people who must be either included or excluded in order for democracy to function, but their words show an ongoing fight to level the playing field. The more high-brow talking heads articulate the supranational powers and currents of capitalism that pervert the democratic process. These conversations allude to unseen monoliths and ask audiences if contemporary nations are truly as democratic as they claim they are. Taylor and company don’t name names—and in doing so, they avoid some of the conspiratorial whispers, speculations, and over-generalizations that have hindered similarly-themed films. Pointing figures isn’t the aim since we’re all complicit in this flawed system.

What is Democracy? is unapologetically intellectual and refreshingly so. The conversations with academics avoid the ivory tower navel-gazing that one often encounters in institutions, but they also struggle to pinpoint how people can put theory into practice and create a just and equal society. Even the conversations outside the academy dig deep into democracy’s quagmire and the most superficial answers from the masses make the documentary extra meta as Taylor’s non-judgmental approach suggests that, like it or not, everyone has the same right to an opinion. Taylor’s conversations with everyday people yield a range of ideas with some expected nuggets coming from the “America First” crowd and some insightfully well-articulated angst from marginalized voices. Each voice from the philosopher with a PhD to the Trump supporter with a Big Gulp has merit in Taylor’s survey.

Mind you, Taylor doesn’t take their responses at face value. There is always a follow-up question and a feedback loop that invites the participants to consider the foundations of the democratic process. The film thankfully avoids the easy cynicism that this new wave of populism inspires and Taylor shows that the best response is to think more deeply about the systems of power and inequality that make democracy this elusive, evasive. A running theme throughout the conversations is the value of education and Taylor’s inquisitive methodology encourages viewers to be engaged listeners and learners. Each conversation inevitably leads to a contemplation of why democracy works much better for some people than it does for others.

The film will inevitably prove frustrating if one doesn’t tap into Taylor’s brainwave or if one sees all this gabbing simply as empty philosophy. (The open-endedness of her approach denies a concise solution to the world’s problems.) However, attending a philosophy seminar can also be one of the most rewarding academic experiences because it teaches a person both nothing and everything as it opens the mind. This process is what democracy is all about. It is not about providing comfortable answers. If democracy did that, elections wouldn’t be held every few years. It is a process of constant questioning and appraisal.

Taylor’s film demonstrates how democracy sometimes yields lemon when the fields bear finer fruits. It’s up to us to take those lemons and make lemonade—and, quite frankly, to add the nip or two of gin that makes it tolerable.

What is Democracy? opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on January 4.
Read more about the film in this profile of Astra Taylor and in this essay on populism.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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