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Lauren O’Neill-Butler on Astra Taylor’s What Is Democracy? (2018)

Astra Taylor, What is Democracy?, 2018, color, sound, 107 minutes. Sylvia Federici with Astra Taylor.

SPOILER ALERT (sort of): What Is Democracy? doesn’t deliver an answer to its titular question or a remedy for our bleak times in the United States. What the film offers instead is a peripatetic and sweeping glance at a centuries-old problem through a chorus of shrewd assessments. And by chorus, I mean to denote ancient Greece and tragedy. This isn’t a hopeful documentary—how could it be?

In lieu of speaking primarily with philosophers as in her past films—Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008)—here writer and director Astra Taylor gathers a divergent group of interviewees: young students in Miami, college students in North Carolina, politicians in Greece, trauma surgeons, refugees, poets, activists, and more. A barber giving someone a shave is perhaps the most on point: “I think that democracy is inherently flawed because people have to act it out and, like Machiavelli said, men are a sorry breed.” He’s not speaking about those who, incomprehensibly, don’t vote—who don’t act it out—he’s talking about people who can’t vote. As a felon, he has been disenfranchised of his voting rights, and much of what he says underscores how dispossession always and everywhere finances possession.

One strength of the film is that each voice rings out clearly, even the privileged and not so clear-eyed. “Trump was the legal hand grenade that we’ve thrown into the system,” declares a twentysomething man, violently bringing to mind an earlier scene where scholar Eleni Perdikouri unpacks Plato’s warning in 380 BC that a demagogue who promises to overthrow the rich and let the people rule will eventually take power in any liberal democracy. Quotes from the Republic are dispersed throughout the film; this feels at times heavy-handed but serves as a reminder that democracy, with its uneasy bedfellows of majority rule and liberalism, was a fragile ideal from the very start.

Taylor also interviews more philosophically inclined luminaries—Silvia Federici, Efimia Karakantza, Wendy Brown, and Cornel West—to form a different chorus, one that supplies historical facts and a bit of theater. In the ancient agora of Athens, the gregarious Karakantza explains that after a revolt in the early sixth century, Athenians created a novel system wedding demos (common people) to kratos (strength). Since voting was considered too dogmatic, government officials were selected randomly, though, as we know, women, enslaved people, immigrants, and many others were excluded, that is, they not considered citizens. This earliest form of direct democracy was a way to defy the upper classes from becoming the majority and to ensure, as Karakantza says, “the well-being of the people—we forget about that.”

Moments later, we witness refugees arriving by ferry in Piraeus. These scenes cut right to the core of our ageless amnesia. A young woman named Salam Magames from Aleppo (or as she says, “the end of the world”) talks about leaving her family behind and the recent rape of a seven-year-old girl during her journey through Macedonia’s border. She’s asked to define freedom, and without hesitation she replies that it means humans get all their rights: to a wage, to healthcare, to vote, and, moreover, to dignity, that ever-elusive concept tangled up for centuries with class, rank, and status. While there’s no consensus on what democracy is—likely because it’s both too large and too small of a concept and insists on certain universals—what emerges throughout the film are the lived realities of those denied citizenship, the evicted in our grand age of rights. A Guatemalan immigrant seamstress in a worker-owned sew-and-cut factory weeps and worries about being separated from her children. An Afghan asylum seeker, who had to leave Pakistan because his ethnicity put him in danger, discusses how he believes democracy is justice––yet another unrealized archetype. I could go on.

The film opens with Federici in Sienna, Italy, claiming we shouldn’t abandon the word democracy because of the hard work of those who fought for its realization. (No names are given.) Midway through, Angela Davis argues for a new form of democracy—new conditions, new political possibilities, maybe a new word for it, even. (No specifics are given here either.) So, while we wait for a better term, we go with what we’ve got: Writing recently in Bookforum, Taylor remarked that she once thought to title this film The Trouble with Democracy, but in the end that felt a bit too pessimistic, even as democracy, nearly everywhere, is at risk with populists and furious electorates on the rise. She landed on a more open-ended name—a conundrum, verging on a mystery.

What Is Democracy? is currently on a US tour.