Exploring Democracy with Astra Taylor

A Review of 'What is Democracy?'

Film Democracy Documentary


The Mantle Image Astra Taylor
Director Astra Taylor (right) examines a Medieval mural in Italy with scholar Silvia Federici.


“What is Democracy?” The titular ongoing question of Astra Taylor’s newest documentary is a complicated one, but she finds plenty of people to help her, and us, understand it. Taylor, a Canadian-American, has two previous documentaries under her belt, both exploring philosophy, history, and society, and she’s also the author of People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. In this film, she examines the loaded ideal of democracy, taking us to various locations—Italy, Greece, North Carolina, Miami—to learn about the term in theory and in practice, speaking to everyone from professors and theorists to everyday people, discussing historical and philosophical definitions and modern-day interpretations. The film has a fluidity, going from one discussion to another, one location to another, with smooth transitions between events that are pointedly related and impressively never get off topic, the result of its strong structure. Taylor has created sections, headed by quotes from Plato (a father of democracy), which introduce different aspects of democracy and are connected to different events, discussions, and places. The structure and filmmaking style make it very watchable and enjoyable, unlike some documentaries that feel like work, with too many talking heads with boring backgrounds, narration over old footage, and statistics shown in graphics.


In "What Is Democracy?" we feel part of Taylor’s journey—thrown into conversations, visiting schools, sewing cooperatives, hospitals, and barber shops, listening to refugee stories, and exploring historical sites. Taylor invites us on her exploration and into her conversations. She doesn’t give simple answers, but rather shows the importance of learning and the exchange of ideas between people of all walks of life. These interactions, we learn, are at the heart of democracy.


Upon hearing the title and reading the synopsis, I imagined this film to be heavy on the interviews with politicians and activists, perhaps exploring the divided state of American politics. Rather than delve into such a contentious and frustrating world, Taylor goes about delving into what this term that is used so widely actually means, in historical and contemporary context.


There are four main sections of the film, bookended by introduction and conclusion sections. Sprinkled throughout all sections are interviews with professors, scholars, and theorists in Italy, Greece, and the United States. The film begins and ends with historical and philosophical discussions in the town hall of Siena, Italy and amid the ancient ruins of Athens. Greek and Italian women scholars start us off with the history of democracy and bring energy and vitality to what could be dull, intellectual explanations.


The Mantle Image Cornel West
Cornel West: "Plato's Republic provides the most powerful indictment of not just democratic practices but the possibility of democracy."


In Siena, Taylor examines a Medieval mural with scholar Silvia Federici and their discussion moves from a seemingly simple notion of good government versus bad government to contemporary ideas of the personal and political, equality and feminism. “In order to have full democracy, you have to democratize the sphere of reproductive relations,” Federici argues. Eleni Perdikouri and Efimia Karakantza, professors of Greek philosophy, speak to us among the ruins of Plato’s Academy and the Agora, explaining how the Greeks invented democracy, an entirely new concept to randomly organize districts and select leaders among everyday people. One of the biggest reasons for this innovative experiment, Karakantza points out, was “you have to ensure the well-being of the people…we forget that.” Taylor also interviews Dr. Cornel West and Professor Wendy Brown about the history of democracy and philosophy. Their discussions range from West’s interpretation of Plato, addressing how democracy can dangerously lead to tyranny, to Brown’s explanation of Rousseau, explaining the somewhat lost priority of collective self-determination over the right to be let alone.


Continually defining different aspects of democracy, Taylor makes sure to give these discussions some real-world context by highlighting contemporary events, including scenes of political activism: footage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, speeches by Reverend William Barber and activist Angela Davis, in-depth sequences of the economic crisis and Occupy demonstrations in Athens. But one of the most powerful sequences was not of political activism, but of a huge ferry in Piraeus, Greece, filled to the brim with people. Taylor films it as it slowly docks, and hundreds of Syrians and other Middle Easterners come ashore, fleeing from tyranny into the land where democracy was born. Combined with the speeches and demonstrations, these scenes give raw and affecting footage of people most in need of the basic rules of democracy. They give compelling interviews, discussing freedom and justice, and sharing their traumatic experiences. Taylor also gives the same attention and time, in the first section of the film, to the stories of Latin American immigrants who work at a sewing cooperative. These scenes of refugees and immigrants mirror each other in the heartfelt and painful stories they tell and the significance the film lends them—they are as important (if not more important) to the explanation of democracy as the various experts in philosophy and history.


The Mantle Image Astra Taylor What is Democracy
A march and call for open borders by Middle Eastern refugees in Pireaus, Greece.


Taylor succeeds in presenting complex interpretations of democracy from various points of view, but there is a definite favoring of viewpoints from marginalized and oppressed people. Although she briefly interviews two white Republican students in Raleigh, conservative residents of Miami, and a Greek resident who is against accepting incoming refugees, the focus of the longest sequences are those fighting for racial and economic justice, and those fleeing violence in search of fair treatment. The only thing I found lacking was an examination of the Iroquois Nation’s vision and practice of democracy, which influenced the United States’ founding fathers. The Italian scholar Federici briefly mentions that indigenous people of what is now the U.S. were self-governing and had no property, and were therefore an example of true democratic freedom, but the film’s historical discussion of democracy continually focuses on Ancient Greece. This felt like a missed opportunity, since these indigenous societies are examples of democracy that came about separately from the philosophical foundations in Greece, portraying the possibility of various societies coming to these ideals of community and equality on their own. The film has an intentionally global reach—if it was only about the U.S., I assume there may have been more explanation of the foundations of our particular democratic experiment. However, I can’t help but wonder about other lesser-known societies around the globe that have had similarly democratic structures.


Taylor has created a wide-ranging portrait of the ways in which democracy could work (since we learn that it almost never fully has), the ideals behind the term, and the necessity for continuing to discuss the historical, philosophical, and real-world examples of these ideals. Various threats to democracy are examined: corporate and personal greed, globalism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and the basic human flaws of selfishness and laziness. Multiple interviewees are skeptical about whether people can govern themselves, whether democracy can ever truly succeed. But even the skeptics agree that democracy is worth fighting for, and Taylor encourages viewers and subjects into thoughtfulness with an emphasis towards community, inclusiveness, and diversity, always coming back to the basic definition of democracy: the rule of the people, which is, of course, not as simple as it sounds.



"What Is Democracy" opens in New York City at the IFC Center on January 18, 2019. Look for it in other U.S. cities throughout February and March.



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Cornel West