What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, 2018)


I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Astra Taylor’s new documentary, What is Democracy? is significantly more conventional that her last one, Examined Life, made a decade ago. It’s still made up of long interviews with fascinating thinkers, but where that film featured a number of philosophers expounding on their beliefs for about ten minutes each, captured with a cheap handheld camera while walking (or riding, or rowing) through typical urban settings, What is Democracy? features a wider range of speakers and locations, captured in crisp digital images. But the fundamental emphasis on ideas remains, with scholars and thinkers joining with activists and regular people to toss around the eponymous question. Some of them are more compelling than others: Cornel West, one of the highlights of Examined Life, makes a welcome return; Silvia Federici, discussing a massive mural in Sienna called “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government”, is delightful; and Eleni Perdikouri takes us on a fascinating tour of Athenian ruins and political practices.

Taylor links the more theoretical discussions with practical realities of the failures of democracy to be realized in the United States and Greece, with heart-breaking interviews with public school students and Syrian refugees, with an ex-con barber, with infuriatingly ignorant white kids at a Florida beach, and more. The whole thing seems hopeless, the disconnect between the theory and practice of democracy, of the corruption of the ideal by systems of oppression (economic, racial, patriarchal). And Taylor doesn’t flinch from that hopelessness, nor does she offer easy solutions to the enormity of the problems that beset those people striving for justice and freedom. Too many social problem documentaries would be content to touch on all these issues, financial crises and civil wars and apartheid states, and then offer an example or two of a worker co-op or a volunteer worker as a balm for our outraged consciences. But the co-op Taylor gives us is full of people tearfully terrified of America’s racist immigration policies, and the volunteers trying to teach English to refugee kids are instead begged by their students to tell them their own stories of trauma. There’s no easy route to democracy, the powers that stand against it are too vast and mighty. The struggle has been on-going for 2,500 years and it can only continue.