Meet Astra Taylor, the director of What is Democracy?
A Festival-bound film produced from the back seat of Neutral Milk Hotel’s tour van
Art by Franziska Barczyk
What is Democracy? — the title and central question of Astra Taylor’s new documentary — forgoes simple answers in favour of a series of compelling contradictions, one of which is that democracy is both thought and action. As a musician, activist, author, and filmmaker, it’s clear the Winnipeg-born Renaissance woman has both thought and action covered. She wrote the proposal for What is Democracy? in the back seat of seminal indie act Neutral Milk Hotel’s tour van (she toured with the band as a guitarist and accordion player), and used tour stops to connect with activists across North America. She’s also directed two films with profound ideas: Žižek! (2005), profiling Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and Examined Life (2008), in which she accompanies some of the most influential contemporary thinkers on a series of walks to discuss their ideas.
With What is Democracy?, Taylor has kept her intellectual ambitions equally high. In making the film, she spoke to international political theorists, middle school students in Miami, Syrian refugees in Greece, and Donald Trump supporters in North Carolina to uncover what democracy means to unique individuals in disparate situations.
Thom Powers, TIFF Docs Programmer and host of the TIFF Podcast Network’s Pure Nonfiction, spoke with Taylor about What is Democracy?, which will be screening at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival on September 11 and 13.
Filmmaking isn't all that you do. You're involved with music, you're involved with activism, you're a writer... Can you describe these different pieces in your life?
I sometimes wrestle with the moniker "filmmaker," actually, because that is a verb to me. It's an action, and it's something that I don't do all the time. I'm someone who has made films and may make films in the future, but it's not my daily practice, and my films are informed by the fact that it's not. This movie was cooked up in the wake of being part of Occupy Wall Street, so really throwing myself into activism, but I was actually writing the proposal for it in the back seat of the Neutral Milk Hotel tour van after being on the road for two years (I play accordion and guitar) and really thinking, "I'm tired of being in a band. I want to do something different. I want to get my hands dirty making a movie again and feed my mind."
You've really done the work of rolling up your shirt sleeves and getting your hands dirty with activism, because if someone was just to see your film, it's very much a film of ideas. It's a film about philosophy. But these two things are connected in your life experience.
For some reason, I want to make films about ideas. I don't really know why that is, but the films I've made have been like that. I made Žižek!, about the Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Then I made Examine Life, which is a series of walks with philosophers. I would personally like to see more films about ideas in the world — so I'm making them — but I also think I have a different perspective than a lot of social justice filmmakers in the sense that I'm a bit skeptical about the impact or utility of films in terms of social change.
You have to do the work. That's why I've devoted so much energy, and fundraising capacity, and thought, and effort to the organizing side, because I think, ultimately, if you want to change things, you have to organize people into a social block and try to find the levers of power as best you can — you know, do the work of democracy. Film is, for me, a place, a sort of creative medium. I love ideas, I love philosophy, and I love political theory, and one of the contradictions of democracy is that it is both thought and action.
You are from Canada. You've made all your films with support from Canada. But you’re based mostly in the US. How does your Canadian background influence the way you make films?
Being Canadian and living here informs the film because I have spent my whole life as a permanent resident of the United States — or most of my life, because my family moved here when I was a kid. Certain political avenues just weren't open for me. I couldn't vote. I couldn't say I'm going to be the president when I grow up. So then you have to find other ways of being civically engaged, and so my civic and political engagement has always been kind of as an outsider involved in social movements or involved in a sort of war of ideas. That's part of why the film goes beyond electoral politics and modes of engagement that are tied to the status of being a citizen. When you don't have equal rights, it gives you a different perspective. Of course, this is speaking as a Canadian who's about as privileged a permanent resident as you can be, but I still couldn't vote in elections. I can pay taxes but not vote. This informed my perspective; we can't limit democracy to a citizen.
The film approaches the question of “What is democracy?” from many angles, where democracy is associated with all kinds of good things in society, but it’s also the system that elected Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. I wonder how you personally grapple with your feelings about democracy, in light of those outcomes.
These outcomes are, of course, problems with democracy, and what the film does is it says that these problems aren’t new. It goes back to Plato. The founding text of political theory is The Republic by Plato, and one of its core themes is the problem of the demagogue, and how people can be swept up by unruly passion and ignorance and get behind these leaders who say that they're going to serve them, but ultimately don't. Democracy is inherently flawed, and this dynamic will always tip it over into tyranny. We are in a moment of profound political crisis, and yet these dynamics have been playing out for millennia.
But what do I actually think of democracy? Honestly, the film actually made me much more enthusiastic about democracy. The film, in a way, was born of ambivalence about the term. If I look back like five or ten years ago, democracy meant nothing to me. That word seemed so sold-out. You know who said that word? George W. Bush. It wasn't a word that spoke to me. Words like "justice" spoke to me, or "equality," or "liberation," but definitely not “democracy.” Through the reading I've done, and the filming I've done, and the writing I've done, I've actually come back to the side of democracy. I think that some of these troubling aspects of it can be mitigated when you make democracy more robust and more substantial. There are powerful interests that don't want us to do that, and they've been around for a long time.
The film does contain theoretical conversation, but it continually ties it back to what's really happening on the ground — with immigration as a big theme. I wanted to ask you about a theorist that you interviewed named Wendy Brown. First, can you just set up who she is?
Wendy Brown is one of the pre-eminent political theorists of our time. She works these days specifically on the issue of neoliberalism. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and she was someone who, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to include in the film.
Democracy's essence is that the people have the power or rule, but Wendy presents the questions of "who" — who is "the people" and how do they rule? I think there’s also the question of where they rule, which is why the issue of territory and place, and the tension between the local and the global, is so prominent in the film. Democracy is intellectually hard, in part because "the people" is an abstract concept. If you live in a monarchy, you can point to the picture of a king and say, "Okay, that's the guy who makes the decisions" — or a queen, if that's the case — but what do you point to to show that the people rule? There's literally nothing. So you have something that doesn't really exist making decisions.
Wendy’s right. I mean, this idea of a global democracy is — maybe it sounds good, but it's conceptually incoherent. The challenge of our time is figuring out how we set up boundaries, set up the lines to demarcate a community in a way that's not awful, that's not racist, that's not misogynist, that's not xenophobic or exploitative, because people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives. Should I be telling a teacher in Italy how to run their school? No, I'm not part of that community. I should be excluded from it. I don't live there. I don't know what they're going through. I don't know the history.
Right now we have very powerful people who aren't part of communities dictating social policy for people they don't know, and they don't care about, and they'll never meet. So we need to grapple with this question of who the "we" is — who is making these decisions, and where. What Wendy presents is shocking, because it’s in the context of these global considerations. How do you have a global democratic consciousness while also understanding that democracy has to be rooted in a place and in a specific community? There's no easy answer, and we have to experiment and learn from the past and fail and fail again and fail better.
For me, this is also the spirit of the film — like, why did I make this film? Partly it was because I wanted to make a political film that was not afraid of asking questions. It doesn't pretend to lift the curtain and tell you the secret of democracy or the five-point plan for the revolution. It honours the complexity of the situation that we're in and the challenges that lay ahead.
It's something that I've been thinking about with other filmmakers, especially in these times: do we need another film that tells us how bad it is or do we need a film that gets us up out of our chairs somehow and rouses us to action?
If you're going to make a film that is aiming at getting people out of their chairs, you’d better be connected to social movements and know what it is you're connecting people to and be connected to something strategic. Otherwise, what are you creating this energy for?
Sometimes documentaries get knocked for being too prescriptive. Here's the environmental documentary and in the credits, here's the website you were supposed to go to and here's the five-point plan of action.
And sometimes the "five-point plan of action" is to just tweet. It’s not enough. I wanted to make a film where, instead of ending with this big, rousing protest, and epic music, and this idea that we can hold hands and march into a new world, we addressed the spirit of the day after — the day after the big march, the moment after the euphoria, when the challenge is "what do you do?" That energy is dissipated, but the problem is still there. This is one reason why I went to Miami, Florida. There are quite a few scenes shot here because that’s where the murder of Trayvon Martin occurred, where Black Lives Matter came to the forefront. Community activists there are engaging with this question of what to do when media attention has moved on and you're having a hard time pressuring elected officials to do anything. Let's start there and engage with the community instead of ending with the protest.
Steven Soderbergh once said that every film pitch should end with the words, “Ultimately, this is a film about hope.” There’s this cliché about injecting hope into documentaries, and yet there's a real motive for it: people need hope. I wonder how you think about the role of hope in your film.
Well, I want to ask you, did you think it was hopeful?
There's something that's hopeful about being stirred up by ideas.
But at the end of the film, was it hopeful? It doesn't really end on an overwhelmingly hopeful note, right?
No, I wouldn't say that.
That was on purpose. I was adamant that I didn't want to end the film with a sense of false hope, with a kind of emotional string-pulling. I wanted the hope to be hard-earned — and the hope is in ideas, in people engaging with these issues over hundreds and hundreds of years and not giving up on the struggle. This idea that there could be one epic, cathartic action or a way to tweet ourselves into a real democracy just seems false to me.
Astra Taylor was born in Winnipeg. She is known for her work as an activist and documentarian. Her films include Zizek (05), Examined Life (08), and her latest feature, What is Democracy? (18), all of which have screened at the Festival.
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