A fanged creature emerges from beneath the ceiling of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. He sits enthroned, flanked by the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. A black collar rides high on his neck, and robes of gold and mahogany hang from his shoulders. Clenching a silvery dagger, he stares with eyes crossed into his brow.
He is Tyrammides, or Tyranny: the anthropomorphosis of the effects of despotism in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century mural The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and the first image we see in Astra Taylor’s new film, What Is Democracy? Like Faunus, the god of the forest, Tyrammides is outfitted with a pair of horns. But unlike Faunus, he is of the city—a place where, according to Plato and Aristotle, the “good life” can be achieved, where the political animal dwells.
Following this opening, Taylor weaves together a series of powerful, often messy encounters with a variety of experts and laypeople. Standing beneath Lorenzetti’s mural of secular life in the city-state, she and the writer Silvia Federici talk about democracy with little in the way of theory or jargon. “So, it’s propaganda for the oligarchs,” Taylor says of the mural in a later scene. Federici agrees. The ideas presented are indisputably high-minded; still, Taylor’s not afraid to start with the basic questions: What makes a good government? What makes a bad one?
As a rule, Taylor approaches her film’s interview subjects—from the scholar Cornel West, to a formerly incarcerated hairdresser in Miami, to a young female refugee who fled Syria for Austria by way of Greece—as if they were all philosophers. Each person speaks openly about what they interpret democracy to mean. Some discuss its ideals, others its pitfalls, with a few lamenting its cooptation for nationalistic ends. Like Taylor and Federici, these people are far more inquisitive than prescriptive. The film, then, doesn’t seek to provide answers, but rather to tell a “story of ideas.” It’s a challenge that Taylor has laid out for herself before, in 2008’s Examined Life, which featured philosophers discussing practical applications of their work.
After Examined Life, Taylor dove head-first into political organizing, most notably with 2011’s Occupy movement. Along with fellow organizers and journalists like Sarah Leonard and Keith Gessen, she co-edited the Occupy! broadsheet. In 2014, Taylor co-founded the Debt Collective as a platform to offer debtors the means for direct action and to empower people to dispute medical, housing, and student debt. She will publish her second book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, with Metropolitan Books this May. In it, Taylor promises to tackle the “thieving plutocrats in the White House,” but in her new film, the actual references to Donald Trump are scarce. And yet, while we don’t see footage of him or barely hear his name, Trump is present nonetheless. The ideas he perpetuates are part of our history; as evidenced in the film, they come from, according to Taylor, “our founding fathers, the Jim Crow South, and the American slavocracy.” Trump, for Taylor, is just as much a historical circumstance as he is a demagogue.
I spoke with Taylor at a café in northwest Brooklyn in late December. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Leah Rosenzweig: So, what made you want to begin the film with… very old art?
Astra Taylor: First of all, that painting is just really amazing.
LR: It is. You could probably stand there for days.
AT: I literally did stand there for days. The painting, it turned out, is one Silvia loved and knew really well herself. I read about it when I was doing a lot of research on the history of political theory. It’s the first-ever secular fresco. Siena, Italy, was also on my radar: It was this republican city-state run by a rotating circle of oligarchs. The merchants and bankers would, by lottery, select a subset of their own class to run the city. They commissioned the painting to remind themselves to be good rulers, which is why in the film I say that it’s “propaganda for the oligarchs.”
LR: One through line between What Is Democracy? and Examined Life is this Platonic ideal that the good life is lived in the city. In both films, cities also seem to act as a means of segmenting or structuring the discussion.
AT: There’s something about space and place that’s alive in both Examined Life and the new film. I like things that have a formal architecture. In Examined Life, it’s these actual chapters of different walks with different philosophers. And in What Is Democracy?, while there are chapters, it unfolds in a way that seems more digressive and loose. For me, though, the structure is very precise. My goal was not to belabor the audience with it, but rather to let it almost wash over them.
There’s an entire 1960s tradition of digressive, intellectual, almost cerebral and yet very political documentary films, like Chronicle of a Summer (1961) and Le Joli Mai (1963)—films which we don’t really have anything like today. We have a lot of good films, but they’re not as messy. It just wouldn’t make sense to me to make a film about democracy and have it be very slick and packaged, with only experts as subjects. It just wouldn’t feel true to our situation.
LR: Why use this film to wrestle with the question of what democracy is rather than deal with how it’s faring at the moment?
AT: I think what documentaries are good at is shifting your perception and changing someone’s point of view. In that way, they’re a really interesting medium for philosophy, which is about trying to get us to see things anew, to question what our self is worth. But I don’t see documentaries as activism; they’re not the best medium for bullet-pointed proposals.
The medium through which we fight against democracy’s decline is not film—it’s organizing. And it has to be very adversarial. I mean, it’s not friendly, philosophical reflection; it’s blocking the flows of capital accumulation and engaging in riots and strikes and protests and party-building and electing different candidates. It’s things we know we have to do, but sometimes just need the push to get there.
LR: Was there anything or anyone you felt particularly nervous about representing or approaching cinematically?
AT: I was very conscious of the fact that, for the first time, I was filming people who were more vulnerable than me. With Examined Life, I was 27 when the film was shot—I was literally defaulting on my student loans and filming people who were established in the field and had a strong public voice. I didn’t feel as though there was a major ethical conundrum. With this film, there was. I realized that if I was going to film Salam, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee who’s in limbo in Greece, I can’t just steal her story and never talk to her again. There’s a real power differential there. So in consciousness of that, I have to suffuse the camera work—how I show somebody and how I edit them. For me, it became about not wanting to be irresponsible to the people I was filming, whose lives I represented and whose lives I now represent every time the film screens.
LR: What was it like to ask people to think critically and evaluate what democracy means to them?
AT: One of my rules for myself going into this film was that I was going to approach everybody respectfully and with real sincerity: What do you think? What is justice? Who are “the people”? Who draws the boundaries of our community? What is power? A lot of people struggled with these types of questions, because there’s never been a space in their lives where they’re engaged as philosophical beings or democratic beings. Most of them don’t experience democracy in their jobs, and those who aren’t disenfranchised don’t experience democracy beyond electoral campaigns.
LR: Not to mention that people don’t experience democracy in schools, which is something you touch on intimately in the film.
AT: Exactly. To get Canadian for a second, in Quebec students have unions as young teenagers, and these unions are part of their lives through college and into their adult working lives. I mean, Americans don’t have anything like that!
LR: So much of the film takes place in Greece. Why choose to focus so much on one country?
AT: I went to Greece for so many reasons—not just for the ruins, but because it provided a contemporary model for democracy and peril due to the financial crisis. It was a way for me to work in a bit of Occupy without focusing on the American story that I knew too intimately to represent fairly. Greece won out over any other place I could have filmed because the contemporary story there is so urgent.
And because of that history, people wind up being pretty conversant in certain aspects of political philosophy. Initially, I had been there scouting around the referendum period [in 2015, when Greek voters resoundingly rejected the austerity measures proposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund]. But when I went back to shoot the film, it had been about nine months, and it was clear that things weren’t going to get better. The mood had gone from one of hopefulness to one of frustration. There was confusion about what to do next, on top of dealing with issues of migration and the refugee crisis. In a way, though, I’m happy that I filmed later, because part of my point with the film was that we don’t always exist in moments of excitement, with movements on the rise and people in the streets. Typically, we don’t know what to do next, things aren’t going very well, and we’re sort of fucked. The question, for me, was how to have that be the mood of the film and not be totally hopeless.
LR: At one point, you ask [the American political theorist] Wendy Brown if democracy can ever live up to its promise. She says that democracy has become a “totally fluid and stretchable notion”—it can be appropriated by anybody for anything. And yet we keep coming back to it, for a simple reason: It captures the idea of people governing themselves rather than being governed by something else. But is that idea actually ever realized, and how much of it can be applied universally?
AT: It’s hard to solve the problem of democracy. Who is the “we” that’s making decisions? Later in the film, Wendy—at least to me—poses the challenge of asking what ethical exclusions would look like. Simply saying “Democracy is universal” is largely incoherent. What would it look like for 8 billion people to make decisions? It erases our connection to place, to communities. There’s also something imperial about this idea, because then we would just have a global democracy made in the US’s image. So on what basis do we draw boundaries? And how do we make sure those boundaries are permeable? I think what Wendy poses is a philosophical challenge—and instead of rising to the challenge, people are retreating from it with nostalgic, nationalistic delusions.
I’m very much for freedom of movement. I’ve lived in this country for 39 years as a noncitizen, so naturally I’m on the side of the noncitizens. But I also think there’s this American narcissism where we think everyone would want to come to America because America is so great. But, you know, I think Salam and her family would have much rather stayed in Syria. So many people would rather stay. The challenge, I think, is how you make a livable world which prioritizes equality so that people stay rooted, so that communities can stay connected to the place in which they exist.