Astra Taylor was sitting in the back of the Neutral Milk Hotel tour van in 2013 when she came up with the idea for What Is Democracy?. About a year and a half into the project, she started wondering if her ambition had exceeded her grasp. “I was like, ‘Hmm, Astra, maybe next time make something about, I dunno, cake-making,’ ” she recalls with a laugh during a call to the Georgia Straight from New York.
A few years later still, the writer-filmmaker (and sometime musician) has delivered a documentary that takes an impossible premise and boils it down to 107 minutes of concentrated brain food. What Is Democracy?, opening at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (December 7), arrives as a riveting philosophical disquisition on a concept that’s both simple and elusive, with the amiable Taylor as your guide while she travels from the seat of democracy in Athens, Greece, to the crucible of modern banking in Italy, then on to the crumbling inner cities of the U.S.
The experts she taps along the way boast impeccable credentials, whether it’s feminist scholar Silvia Federici or a luminous Cornel West, with Plato and Rousseau as recurring touchstones. But it’s the regular folk captured by Taylor’s camera who arguably make the biggest impression. The filmmaker was especially moved by her interview with Ellie Brett, a barber and ex-con living in Miami.
“Because his eloquence is so unbelievable and I think he captured something that I was hoping to convey, which was just the dignity and capacity of people that’s being undermined and disrespected and dehumanized,” she says. “I think there was something powerful there.”
In the midst of giving his client a shave, Ellie also offers a withering analysis of the empire’s absolute political corruption. The film avoids didacticism, but given our present condition of perpetual war and market as religion—voted for by a relatively infinitesimal number of Earth’s inhabitants—it comes as no surprise when Taylor remarks: “I think capitalism is the biggest threat to democracy right now.
“There was a time in the 20th century, it was a unique moment, when an enhancing nationalism and liberal democracy and social democracy, especially in Europe, sort of propelled economic growth, and democracy was the useful handmaiden at that point to the capitalist model,” she says. “Now we’ve entered a new phase.”
If that’s the macro view, shared by people like West, What Is Democracy? gives equal voice to some of the least enfranchised among us, whether it’s a traumatized Syrian refugee newly arrived in Greece or a classroom full of African-American youths grieving their collapsing education system.
“Those kids really astounded me and left my sound recordist in tears,” Taylor reports. “For me, it’s like trying to challenge who’s an expert at democracy. Is it that liberal professor at Stanford who’s just obsessed with norms and constitutional theories, or is it this 13-year-old who’s in the system and sees the way it functions? I think the whole film is trying to honour expertise in the sense that there are academics in it while also challenging who counts as an expert.”
Indeed, one of the film’s greatest moments of expertise is supplied by an eighth grader’s clear-eyed critique of education/work as control system. Her astonished classmates erupt into applause. You will too.
“They’re not cynical yet, so they clap for her,” Taylor says, still moved by the spectacle. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, make her the president!’ ”