On seeing Astra Taylor’s What is Democracy?

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2019

I went to see occasional Timberite Astra Taylor’s remarkable film *What is Democracy?* last night. It takes us from Siena, Italy to Florida to Athens and from Ancient Athenian democracy through the renaissance and the beginning of capitalism to the Greek debt crisis, occupy and the limbo life of people who have fled Syria and now find themselves stuck. It combines the voices of Plato and Rousseau with those of ordinary voters from left and right, Greek nationalists and cosmopolitans, ex-prisoners, with trauma surgeons in Miami, Guatemalan migrants in the US, with lawmakers and academics, and with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. All the while it poses the questions of whether democracy is compatible with inequality and global financial systems and the boundaries of inclusion.

Some of the testimonies are arresting: the ex-prisoner turned barber who tells us of his nine years in a US prison of a hunger strike when the authorities tried to take the library away and of his problems adjusting to life of the outside, to being around women, and the fact that he’s denied the vote. And all the time he’s telling you this with attention and passion he’s clipping a customers beard, which adds a note of tension. We hear from trauma surgeons who tell us of the levels of violence in Miami – so much blood that the city is used for training by medics from the US military – and the shock of cycling from one neighbourhood to the next and experiencing swift transitions from opulence to utter destitution. We hear from a young Syrian woman who relates how she had to leave Aleppo after her mother was wounded by a stray bullet in her own home and whose idea of democracy is a country where she can lie safely in her bed.
[click to continue…]