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Democracy and Documentary: A Conversation with Astra Taylor

By Shannon Foskett

When activist-writer-director Astra Taylor pitched Lea Marin at the NFB on the idea for her next documentary, the year was 2013 – a “somewhat complacent political moment,” as Taylor puts it. Obama had won re-election, the frenzied heights of the Occupy movement had faded, and it seemed important to begin a new process of questioning the economic and political order.


But if 2008 is seared into the historical record as the year that threw the globe into a financial crisis so exceptional in scope and structure that it rendered existing introductory economics textbooks useless (as one econ professor told me), ten years later global democracy itself seems to have fallen into a critical state of exception. Since January 2017, social comment in the U.S. has expressed endless variations on the theme of “just when I thought things couldn’t get worse…” – through to mid-terms, when nothing less than the idea of constitutional crisis was on the table.


The same ten years also marks the period between Taylor’s second and third films. But she didn’t have any of these resonances in mind as she began planning and shooting the bulk of what became What Is Democracy? (Canada, 2018, 107 min), a nominee for the Grand Jury Award at Sheffield Doc Fest. Taylor had begun planning a film on standing up to neoliberalism. Like the majority of us, high-tech polling included, Taylor expected the film would be released into the version of reality in which Hillary Clinton became America’s first female president. Given the “black swan” type events which actually transpired, perhaps what isn’t at all surprising is how much of a chord she says her new film has been striking with audiences around the globe. “There’s a general feeling of despondency,” Taylor says. “it’s not just in the U.S.”


Given the pace of her current film promotion and book editing schedule (Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone arrives in early 2019), I felt immensely honoured to have the opportunity to speak with Astra by phone after her arrival in Dublin. While the better part of our call was spent talking about the film’s production and documentary methods, we also waded into issues at the intersection of democracy and technology: predatory advertising; “deep fakes;” the Signal app; automation (or “fauxtomation,” as Taylor has convincingly argued); A.I., and the need for placing outside constraints (such as state-level legislation) on technological development.


As she told me, though, while the documentary could have gone further into some of these topics – Wendy Brown does raise the problem of technocracy– she had just finished writing The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014), which already covers many of these issues, and it was time to take a step back and re-examine some of our most basic, widely-held assumptions such as that of democracy itself. So she went back to original texts (Plato, Rousseau) and delved into research on the origins of capitalism.


So it is that I learned that the Bank of Siena (Italy) is the oldest existing bank in continuous operation, dating back to 1472. It was important for Astra that the film emphasize continuities such as this. Because of capitalism’s tendency to place a premium on novelty and innovation in general, increased demands on production lead to the hyper-specialization and the division of collective temporality into ever-smaller units of exchange. In this way, contemporary structures are tightly bound up in mythologies that erase the fact that a longer history tends to sit behind most things. We might forget that even democracy has a complicated history, for example, and that it is still only a partially realized goal. As an idea it dates back to the 6thcentury BCE, but it hasn’t been until the last several decades that most Western nations have even begun to approach what we would want to call genuine social democracies, and even there it depends on how one understands the scope of the concept.


As it turns out, this line of questioning also leads back to Siena, which, I also learned, is the location of the first secular fresco on the topic of government. So it’s fitting that the film begins and ends with the scene in the Palazzo Pubblico, where the three panels of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government unfurl above on the walls. As Astra pointed out, its visual layout is itself quite cinematic – involving some degree of inherent montage, one might say, as the viewer’s eye is inducted into the labor of comparative reading through spatial juxtapositions. Taylor herself spent hours discussing this early Renaissance representation of government with Silvia Federici (who also owns a copy of it), each of them often circling back around to the same few depictions, and as we know from the film, finding unexpected new readings in light of contemporary perspectives.


What was intriguing for me to hear was that editing the film (footage for which had been gathered as far back as 2011) wasn’t the biggest challenge – Astra knew the parts she liked and wanted to keep – but she told me that she’d originally felt the least sure about how this interpretative dialogue – a feminist discussion of a 14thcentury painting – might translate for the film world, which is often committed to its own internal standards (be these formalist or market-related, both of which converge on a desire for innovation). To the NFB’s credit, Astra tells me, they encouraged her slower-paced, circumambulatory foray into extended lines of historical questioning and told her to take her time with it, to “make it even more philosophical.” No where else would she have been given that kind of support, she says.


From the start, however, it was important for Astra that the documentary avoid extremes of overbearing didacticism, on the one hand, and formal aestheticism, on the other. Taylor didn’t want to come down as “having a certain opinion” going in, but also wanted to steer away from the visual lull of beautiful images that don’t do any critical work. The result is a film whose methods embody its object and goals of inquiry: democracy can be found in the title (an open-ended question); in the deliberately intersectional range of participants and conversations; and in the locations: much of it is shot in the U.S. (some key scenes at a Trump rally) and Greece (Plato’s Academy, but also at the ports welcoming refugees from Syria, and in the rooms of a volunteer medical collective seeking to democratize access to health care in the wake of Greece’s economic crisis) – both of which have recently experienced dramatic failures in democratic process.


Most revelatory, however, is Taylor’s characteristic approach of simply filming conversation itself and giving a range of voices a chance to be heard (she told me that many she spoke to enthusiastically welcomed her, grateful for the opportunity to share their views). While the “talking head” has been a formal device long-maligned by film critics and scholars for its implicit imposition of authority and power relations, this is – quite fascinatingly – the exact opposite of what happens in What is Democracy?. Striking a balance between including herself (not always in the frame; but always a diegetic voice); following conversations outdoors as much as within institutional settings; and giving average people she runs into in the streets as much or more screen time as professional scholars themselves, Taylor’s collective portrait sits closer to the ideals implicit within ancient Athenian government, wherein selection of representatives by lottery – “anyone off the street” – both presumed and enabled an equality of investment in collective outcomes (notwithstanding the fact that their lottery excluded women, slaves and immigrants).


In other words, What Is Democracy? is more than just a question or the cinematic crowd-sourcing of a word’s meaning. The film interrogates democracy in practice as much as theory: the democratization of democracy, if you will – enacting an arrangement in which participation and access to the determination of its meaning is given equally to everyone. This is part of the reason why the film will show you none of the symbolic clichés often used to stand in for democracy: a long shot of the White House; people standing at voting booths; all those “I voted!” stickers on coats and faces. As recent history has shown, voting is necessary, but alone not sufficient, for creating a public sphere which embodies the ideals that many think are essential to democracy: freedom; equality; justice; genuinely distributed power.


One function of art (taken in its most inclusive scope) is its ability to retain and convey to future generations the lived experiences of those in the past: their hopes, their struggles, their knowledge and ignorance. With the rise of industrial and technological processes, our sense of the past, present and future has shortened considerably since the early modern era that followed soon after Lorenzetti’s painting. As so many critics and philosophers have pointed out (Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse; Guy Debord; Bernard Stiegler, to name a few), these changes have had consequences on lived experience at the most intimate levels: everything from sleep to the loss of deep memory and a decline in the ability to imagine (which leads in part to the production and overdependence on the visual clichés mentioned above).


The strength of What Is Democracy? lies in its insistence on working against the conditioned tendencies of contemporary life: engaging in deliberate thinking; listening to all voices; digging up assumptions; working across institutional contexts and juxtaposing the contradictions in global structures that mainstream journalism often fails to capture. In this way, Taylor’s film fills an under-addressed niche for bringing criticism to a wider audience by making it visually accessible. More than this: in doing so, it suggests a rethinking of the historical forms and meaning of education along the same lines the film has done with democracy itself. It even points back to an early modernist moment for cinema, when its universalist faces (its ability to transcend language and geographical boundaries, for one) were seen through the promise of the young medium to humanity itself.


What Is Democracy? (2018)screens at 7pm, November 28, at the CIGI Campus Auditorium, 67 Erb St. W., in Waterloo.

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