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“Capitalism and Democracy are on a Collision Course”: Astra Taylor on her TIFF-Premiering What is Democracy?

I went down yesterday to the port of Piraeus. …I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants. –Plato, The Republic, Book 1

In her third feature, What is Democracy?, premiering this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Astra Taylor takes on the role of ombudswoman to talk to a plethora of individuals about the concept and idea of democracy. As she did in her previous feature, the philosophy doc Examined Life, Taylor poses open-ended questions to her subjects, generously giving them a free rein to not only tell their personal stories but to grapple with big ideas and to describe where they see themselves fitting into the global equation — or even the local one. The majority of people she speaks with actually do not feel they fit in anywhere at all.

Beginning at Plato’s Academy in Athens, Greece, Taylor takes us to specific places to take the temperature of everyday citizens’ perspectives, leading with the question, “Who rules?” What emerges is a singular tapestry of the vox populi. Most importantly, she adds her own voice to the mix and is fully present in front of the camera, something she was reticent to do with Examined Life, in which she orchestrated everything from the perspective of the “hidden driver,” giving most of the leeway to the charismatic thinkers appearing before her lens. Here she plays the ever-voracious “Socratic gadfly” in these dialogues.

We encounter such individuals as Greek lawyer and philosopher Eleni Perdikouri; American public intellectual, political activist and author Cornel West (West also appeared in Examined Life); American political theorist Wendy Brown; Italian-American scholar and feminist Silvia Federici; and a profusion of other voices including undocumented immigrants, refugees and an ex-con. Taylor takes us on a heady journey from the birthplace of democracy in the ancient Agora of Athens to troubled pockets of America, everyone struggling to make sense of how and why we feel like we keep losing our way towards a model of self-rule that benefits us all.

Filmmaker: The film begins in front of an epic painting consisting of three fresco panels called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti housed in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. We return to this room throughout the film as you talk with Silvia Federici, the two of you interpreting and re-interpreting what you see in this portrait of a social body, where political power is embodied in the city. Was this conversation the original departure point for your wide-ranging discussion? Or if not, what led you to stand in front of that artwork with Federici?

Astra Taylor: I discovered that painting while doing research for the film. An essay by the intellectual historian Quintin Skinner mentioned that it was the first secular fresco, so I looked the painting up and saw how beautiful and strange it is — I just fell in love with the imagery. It’s a proto-Renaissance piece, created in the late 1330s and really rich in symbolism. Exactly as the title implies, it’s a representation of the affects of good and bad government — one side is war-torn hell, the other a peaceful thriving community. But, as you see in the movie, the closer one looks at the painting, the more complex it gets. Siena was not a democracy, but it was democratic by the standards of the day. At the time, the frescoes were a commission from a rotating council of oligarchs governing Siena. They literally met in the room in the film where we have the discussion, with this incredibly evocative mural looming over them. The oligarchs were merchants and bankers, a new power elite. Which adds a whole vital layer to the story. Siena during that period was also home to one of the first banks (which still exists today). So just as the film lingers on ancient Athens as the mythic birthplace of democracy, Siena stands in for the beginning of financial capitalism.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I knew I wanted to include the painting as a major motif in the film, but the question was who I would be in dialogue with about it. Fortunately I discovered almost by accident that Silvia Federici is a huge fan of the painting as well. It was one of those moments where I almost didn’t bring it up because it seemed silly — “Hey, I know you live in New York but you are Italian, and there’s this one random painting in Italy, a country full of centuries of wonderful artwork, any chance you know it?” But lo and behold, she actually has a reproduction of the main panel hanging over her couch. Filming with her was obviously meant to be, and it came together really easily — once we convinced the city of Siena to let us do it.

Filmmaker: Only a couple of times do you include attributions to the people we meet on this journey, as if you didn’t really want to have any kind of stratification between what we would deem an “expert in the field” and ordinary citizens, men and women struggling and working to feed and raise families and live their dignified lives. Why did you make that decision?

Taylor: This definitely was something I thought a lot — maybe too much — about. I didn’t want to get bogged down in titling everybody and lending extra authority to some people that way. In the end, I only give the viewer a professional affiliation when it matters. For instance, it’s good to know the guy on screen was the former Prime Minister of Greece and privy to the events he’s discussing. Simply stating people’s first and last names seemed like the right way to go, a way to present a kind of baseline equality in terms of how subjects are presented. In most cases, you glean enough about the people talking from the scene, setting, or what they say to put them in context. Although everyone keeps mistaking Tayna Zakrison for a nurse when she’s a trauma surgeon and a title there would have cleared that up.

Filmmaker: How did you come to choose the locations you went to and the specific people you wanted to talk to? Can you talk a bit about your casting process?

Taylor: The film has a pretty wide temporal and geographical span. As I already mentioned, it looks at ancient Athens and the Middle Ages to explore the dual histories of democracy and capitalism. In the present day, I focus on Greece and the United States, two countries that pride themselves on being cradles and bastions of democracy — though obviously the reality is way more complicated than that beginning with the fact that both nations were built on slavery. In terms of subjects, I feature people whom I felt could really speak to or embody those complexities. There are some subjects I had personal connections to before I filmed with them, but there are also many that I just met by complete chance along the way. Some of the most powerful voices in the film belong to people I literally pulled out of a crowd because I saw something in them that intrigued me.

Filmmaker: At the center of the premise of how the word and concept of democracy has been utilized for political gain is the wealth-versus-poverty divide. Plato said that tyranny follows democracy when a demagogue promises the poor that he will help them overthrow the rich — even if he’s a rich man himself. Here is exactly where we are in America right now with the presidency of Donald Trump. While campaigning, a large part of his rhetoric was the promise of creating an America “ruled by the people”. Can you speak a bit about the ways in which you address this “appropriation of democracy” throughout the film?

Taylor: I think if you had told me 10 or 15 years ago my next film would be on democracy I would have been surprised, since it wasn’t a word I found very inspiring. As the film states right out of the gate, the word “democracy” has been totally abused and misapplied. Especially during the Bush era, it rang hollow. So words like “justice,” “freedom,” “equality,” “socialism,” and “revolution” spoke to me, but not democracy, which just seemed like weak tea.

My book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Networked Age, which came out in 2014, also looks at the way the word has been appropriated, specifically by Silicon Valley which claimed to be “democratizing” everything it touched. That’s gone great! But working on the book made me wonder what a truly democratic Internet might look like.

The thing is, even as the word democracy is appropriated and misemployed, we keep holding onto it because it signifies something really powerful — that we need to figure out how to live together and govern as equals. I actually have a much stronger attachment to the word democracy after making this film. I started out thinking it might go the other way and that I might wind up just saying: “Fuck it. We need a new word!” But I don’t think we do. I think part of what makes democracy such a powerful concept is that while it has a profound meaning — the people rule — it remains perpetually unsettled. Who are “the people,” and how do they rule? Those questions are always up for debate and contestation. It’s that unsettled aspect that allows it to evolve, that makes real democracy a shifting horizon we have to keep struggling toward.

Filmmaker: George Papandreou, the former Prime Minister of Greece tells you that, “We have deified the markets,” that we have given up our power only to cede it to the global marketplace. What constitutes incredibly narrow norms is dictated by metrics and economics. What is your personal take on this idea since it seems to be one of the core ideas in these dialogues you have with almost everyone in the film?

Taylor: Capitalism and democracy are on a collision course. You cannot have political equality under conditions of intense economic inequality, full stop. I think (and hope) that it’s pretty clear that’s my view, even if I don’t say it directly. My aim was not to make a film that’s yet another exposé of the way our system is corrupted by extreme inequality — though it absolutely is. Instead, I wanted to try to take a broader view, looking more expansively at how the rule of money came to be and how the concentration of wealth undermines self-rule. So while the film does talk about the power of the financial sector throughout, especially looking at the impact of the economic crisis in Greece, I meant that specific story as a kind of parable of a more long-standing quandary. I tried not to get too lost in the weeds of a very complicated series of events having to do with bailouts and interest rates and so on.

Ultimately, I aimed to keep the film in a philosophical, reflective register. Because there is so much terrible news these days, it can be overwhelming. Everything feels so urgent, so new and now. We are bombarded with instantaneous news. I want the film to be a chance to step back. As you mention above, Plato himself pointed out that the oligarchy is toxic to democracy. I feel there’s something powerful about reminding people on some level that the dilemmas we are facing aren’t novel, and that over two thousand years ago someone was issuing a warning about just the sort of demagogues that are now currently in power.

Filmmaker: Did you have a script or at least some kind of outline of overarching ideas before you started principal photography, or did it turn out to be more of an organic process peppered with serendipitous meetings? For instance, you do a very lingering and wonderful segment with the barber (and ex-con) Ellie Brett who turns out to be one heck of a truth-teller — articulate, angry, disappointed, and able to describe what he sees very clearly.

Taylor: Both. I had a really long proposal that addressed all the themes, even if the specific approach ultimately changed. Then I wrote a more detailed script, which actually became the outline for the forthcoming companion book. The book is structured as an inquiry into various paradoxes that are central to democracy: freedom versus equality, the present versus the future, structure versus spontaneity, the local versus the global. Within this framework I weave together history, political theory, and more journalistic anecdotes and interventions. So I had an intellectual frame, but ultimately I wanted the film to be more digressive and open. I knew I would get to write a book and state all my thoughts in a lucid, linear fashion. The movie is a chance to allow others to speak, to learn from and be surprised by them. There was indeed a lot of serendipity where finding various people was concerned.

Filmmaker: Wendy Brown talks to you about Rousseau, the first modern defender of democracy and points out the Rousseauian paradox — in order to have a democracy, there must be a populace oriented to self-governance in the first place. The idea that democracy is, distinctly, not something innate in our nature is also articulated by Cornel West when he talks about the fact that for most of us, the burden of democracy is too much. We want to be told what to do. Since anti-democratic forces are becoming global, how do you answer your own question: Can democracy ever live up to its promise?

Taylor: No, it can’t. But as I hinted at before, that’s part of why I like it. The promise expands every time we make social progress. That said, I think the question of whether we are up for the challenge is really key. For a while I thought about calling the film “The Trouble With Democracy.” In the end, I liked asking a question for the title, but I also wasn’t sure the triple meaning I intended would come through. Democracy is in trouble; we all know that. You have to make trouble since democratic advancement only comes about through struggle. Freedom, as activists say, is an endless meeting. I didn’t want the film to only point a finger at the rich and say they are the problem, although they are! Elites have a long and sordid history of sabotaging and undermining democracy and they’re still at it. But they are also utterly outnumbered, and when regular people get organized, we can win. But it’s not easy to get organized and in various ways the film touches on why it’s so hard for so many to make their power felt.

Filmmaker: As in Examined Life, your constellation of voices is comprised of thinkers — whether we call them academics, philosophers, scholars, what have you — who have made careers out of forming and re-forming and grappling with big ideas. As a filmmaker, you do the same. I think I asked this question of you in the past since you’re also a thinker and a writer, as well as an “untrained” scholar: What is it that speaks to you about these topics so that you feel you want to cinematize them? In other words, why is making a movie about this so valuable to your own educational process?

Taylor: I don’t know where the urge to cinematize comes from or why I really do anything, to be honest. I will say I am medium agnostic. I’m certainly galvanized primarily by ideas and principles, not by the urge to be a filmmaker per se. I get interested in a topic or question or cause and want to pursue it, and the form follows. Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book, an essay, a movie, or an institution such as the one I co-founded, an economic justice organization called the Debt Collective. For this content, the form of a film fit. Film is, of course, a very collaborative process, a group effort — though not strictly speaking a democratic one. I was beyond lucky to have a fantastic support team and crew through the National Film Board, especially my amazing producer Lea Marin. I’m really happy it’s a publicly supported project given the subject matter. The end result is pretty idiosyncratic. I don’t think I could have found support for this movie anywhere else.

More fundamentally, democracy is this messy mix of theory and practice, idea and actuality, and a film just seemed like a good format to explore this tension. Democracy has to be lived out — by the demos, by people. And documentaries are great for reveling in humanity! I also am absolutely loyal to a certain kind of interview-based, dialogic film, particularly those with an intellectual and political streak. So I love Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of Summer, Chris Marker’s Le joli mai and also Marker’s series The Owl’s Legacy, and all of John Berger’s strange essay docs. I’m not putting myself amongst these icons, but I am also just trying in my own way to create more of the kind of cinema I really crave, niche genre though it may be.

Filmmaker: The final shot of you leaning in to Federici as she continues to point things out to you in the frescoes is really beautiful. It was such a lovely way to connote that the conversation needs to be continued—unendingly.

Taylor: That shot of the two of us looking up at the painting at the end of the film is one of my favorites. Yes, it symbolizes that she and I are continuing the dialogue, still learning and grappling, and that the question of what democracy is never gets definitively answered, nor should it be. And we are literally standing under the image of justice, embodying the concept of democracy from below. If people watch the film and then continue the conversation on the streets, in bars, in classrooms, or at political meetings, I’ll be content.

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