'What Is Democracy?': Film Review

Unfocused but consistently engaging.

Astra Taylor asks the biggest version of the question in this wide-ranging doc.

A smart doc that's as earnest and scattered as the viewers likely to seek it out, Astra Taylor's What Is Democracy? looks around at the world and realizes that even those of us on the right sides of things aren't always sure what we're fighting for. This is no civics lesson on gerrymandering and the electoral college, but a global musing on what human beings should expect from each other. Those seeking tidy answers should look elsewhere: Most of Taylor's interviewees are honest enough not to even claim the questions are tidy.

We begin by gazing up at a 14th-century fresco in Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Taylor goes over its origins and meanings with a woman named Silvia Federici, and viewers are left to wonder if Federici is an art historian, an Italian politician or what. Throughout the film (with the exception of a couple of Greek political figures), Taylor refuses to identify her speakers' backgrounds, which may fit a certain "all voices count" democratic ideal, but is frustrating for those who watch documentaries with a critical eye. Fortunately, nearly everyone she talks to has something well-informed and thought-provoking to say. And some, like Wendy Brown and Efimia Karakantza — academics from Berkeley and Greece, respectively, if you're wondering — are engaging enough you wish the conversation were happening at a dinner table with several bottles of wine.

Front-loaded with talk of Plato and Aristotle, the picture has just explained the connection between wealth inequality and the rise of tyrants when it cuts to Raleigh, N.C., for a Trump rally. But this is not one of those films, and it moves on from Trumpland so quickly that you wonder why it risks alienating any right-winger who might, say, be forced to watch it on a campus somewhere. Soon we've adjourned to a long sit-down with Cornel West, who promises that "Plato's challenge will never go away."

He's speaking of the worries philosophers have always had about putting complete power in the hands of a largely uninformed populace. But that's almost as close as we get to the specifics of voting, representation, etcetera, except for one interesting bit from Karakantza about the ancient origins of having decisions made by collections of strangers instead of neighbors.

The film ranges from the shadow of American slavery to the Greek debt crisis to Syrian refugees and Latin American migration. Taylor's questions are often vague and open-ended, and sometimes elicit surprising responses: Three physicians in Miami get more specific about the economy and inequality than most of the professionals do; an ex-con barber makes his points with an anecdote about the SEC. While quietly demonstrating that you can make an enlightening general-interest documentary without talking to any white male experts (again, with the exception of those Greek politicians), Taylor may stack the deck a bit on the other side of things: In her many conversations with ordinary folks, the only ones she allows to embarrass themselves on camera are (relatively) privileged white Americans.

Taylor's debut was 2005's Zizek!, which tagged along with the Slovenian philosopher, and as likable as this film's approach can be, one wonders if some of its many subjects mightn't deserve the same kind of single-minded focus: Brown, for instance, who even as the doc closes is tossing out ideas that deserve feature-length explorations all their own. As in the Occupy movement, which the film briefly discusses, it's a noble urge to try letting everyone have their say. But sometimes it's good to sit back and listen to someone who has spent a lifetime studying what you're trying to figure out.

Production company: National Film Board of Canada
Distributors: Zeitgeist, Kino Lorber
Director-screenwriter: Astra Taylor
Producer: Lea Marin
Executive producer: Anita Lee
Director of photography: Maya Bankovic
Editor: Robert Kennedy
Composer: Heather McIntosh

107 minutes