What Is Democracy?


Director: Astra Taylor

Words – Rhiannon Topham

What is it that makes life worth living?
Is it justice? Freedom? Wealth? The ability to climb the social ladder?

These are the questions Astra Taylor seeks to answer in her filmatic cultural essay, What is Democracy?.
The most apt word to describe her work seems to be ‘timely’, but the theoretical inspiration for the film predates the vicissitudes of modern society and actually draws on the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers. Democracy, it seems, has always been contested and disrespected, and it’s this historical despotism which Taylor explores in this thought-provoking documentary.

From Plato’s Academy in Athens to Miami in Trump’s America, What is Democracy? explores the fundamental global injustices which have contributed to such a “shattered, dismembered” society. It’s an uncomfortable reminder (and, indeed, an education for many) that the idea of democracy is experienced differently by repressed cultural groups in comparison to the privileged, for example.
Black communities in the US following Trump’s election, working-class Greek citizens in the aftermath of the country’s financial crisis, and refugees fleeing war torn countries receive particular attention and diversify the conversation about the illusion of democracy as the safety blanket for austerity and oppression.

One of the most interesting abstractions offered by the film is the potentiality of rule by technocrats as a solution to the failures of traditional democracy. Taylor’s ability to tell such an insightful story through a melange of interviews with politicians, historians, thinkers and members of the public truly makes the viewer wonder whether human rule by algorithms would really be that bad – after all, we have been pretty consistently awful to one another since time immemorial.

Asking what democracy is in a time when international news hints at “all out assault” on the integrity of the institution itself seems like risky business.
Hearing the accounts of this film, it looks as if democracy is going to be overthrown by corrupt oligarchs or completely abolished if the voices of frustrated majorities of disadvantaged citizens are eventually heard. But only by taking such a precarious approach could Taylor create this climacteric tour de force, and for that, we should all be in reverence of.

You can see What Is Democracy? at Sheffield Doc/Fest, info and tickets available here: