Who is Astra Taylor?

Profiling the director of ‘What is Democracy?’

8 mins read

Talking to Astra Taylor is a little like watching her documentary What is Democracy? You get the feeling that you’re in the company of a very smart person, erudite and politically astute, but she’s a little all over the place.

Her film tries to answer a nearly impossible question. There are too many theories, too many points of view about the meaning of democracy but occasionally there are explosions of insight and, if you’re patient and you keep your brain working, you get a lot out of it.

“On the page the proposal was even more sprawling,” Taylor confesses inside T.O.’s NFB offices.

She was originally inspired by the activist eruptions in of 2011 in Egypt, Turkey, the United States and other hotbeds of resistance. But though she was impressed with their energy she could see their limitations.

“They were saying, ‘These people don’t represent us.’ Activist groups said, ‘Our version is direct democracy and everyone’s invited,’ and then it becomes… I guess the technical term is a cluster fuck.”

Experiencing that version of democracy led her to want to ask the documentary’s eponymous question. To answer it, Taylor travelled to Greece, Miami in the U.S.and Siena in Italy, where she asked thinkers, activists and sometimes just random citizens what democracy means to them.

“I’m a bit of an epiphany junkie,” she says, when I express my appreciation for the way the film sparks ideas. “I love the moment when the light goes on.”

The movie can meander and get lost in some of the many concepts Taylor wants to grapple with but, always aware that she’d taken on something big, the director remained committed to a film that sets the brain in motion.

“I wanted to make a philosophy film not propaganda. The mission in this film is more in line of Socratic thinking. What do you know? What do you not know? It’s about talking to people and treating them as thinkers and with respect. An intellectual is someone who can turn anything into a question and find intellectual pleasure from it—someone lives for ideas not off of them.

“The intellectual frame for the film is paradoxes. Even if we lived in my ideal economically egalitarian world where people don’t have to frickin’ fight to get health care and to eat, there will always be tensions. Temporal tensions, spatial tensions.”

The central tension – and this is one of the film’s key concepts – which emerges during the sequences shot in Miami is the one between democracy and freedom. When she asks several young adults what is democracy, almost all of the Americans say, “Freedom.” But, as political writer Wendy Brown says, democracy is actually about a commitment to collectivity and at odds with freedom. In a moment in the film that’s amusing and distressing at the same time, one of Taylor’s interlocutors actually gets it, “Oh, democracy. That’s when they tell you what to do.”

Brown is one of three public intellectuals who anchor the film. The other two are the charismatic anti-racist Cornel West and feminist scholar Silvia Federici. While documentary filmmakers often have a plan for what they want to make, often serendipity influences the outcome, as it did with Federici.

“I knew Silvia as this woman I’d see at activist events. And I thought, “That’s a cool woman.’ It turns out she wrote a book Caliban and the Witch, which is about how when capitalism began and kicked people off the commons, it also broke the power of women.

“During my research, I had discovered a mural in Siena which has been referred to as the first secular fresco, called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. It turns out that Silvia has a reproduction of one of the panels of the fresco hanging above her sofa. I knew then that she and I had to go to Italy, because that’s the site of the world’s first bank and it’s still there.”

The film begins and ends with Taylor talking with Federici in front of the fresco about its meaning and significance. Between these scenes, Taylor shoots a rally in the U.S. condemning voter suppression, black public school students who, through their experience with school authorities, have an astonishing awareness of how they are excluded from decision-making processes, and the activists in Greece – where democracy has its ancient origins – fighting the European Union’s financial dominance.

A heartbreaking sequence in Athens’ port of Piraeus tracks immigrants from Syria living in limbo in sprawling camps. On first blush, I could see why Taylor found these them irresistible – they could easily by the subjects of their own documentary. But it wasn’t until Taylor explicitly expressed it that I could see the connection to movie’s main topic.

“The demos is the political community and citizenship is the baseline, the ticket into that community. If you don’t have it, you can’t participate in it. Democracy in my sense of the word, which is a robust, ever expanding enactment of equality, owes its existence to people who aren’t citizens who fought their way in. The slaves, the women—they were property and not even seen as people. The fight for inclusion is the motor for democracy.”

In conversation, you can tell that Taylors is passionate about social change. Yet What Is Democracy? is not exactly committed filmmaking in the strictest sense. It doesn’t make you want to get out of your chair and do something. The director is actually fine with that.

“I’m skeptical about the social impact of documentaries, I mean, ‘Do the work.’ We have to overpower the powers that be. You can’t raise awareness to social change. You have to throw your bodies on the gears of the machine. But films are expressive mediums that allow you to see things in different ways. I’m aware of the limits of the film but it freed me to be philosophical. It’s not pretending to be the change.”

What is Democracy screens at the Toronto International Film Festival at Scotiabank, Tuesday, September 11, 2:45 pm and the AGO Thursday, September 13, 3:15 pm.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.


Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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