On my way to a café in Brooklyn to interview director, writer, and activist Astra Taylor about her film What is Democracy?, I could not stop wondering if the answer to the titular question mattered. After watching the documentary, which was released in theaters in January, I did not come away with a neat epistemological claim like “Democracy is x” but instead caught the film’s drift: that democracy is, if nothing else, a problem. As Taylor says in the opening scene, while speaking with Marxist feminist Silvia Federici, “this movie started with a question: What is democracy? And it’s something never actualized, always something in motion, an ideal we are reaching for.”
The etymology of the word democracy, which comes from the Greek word demos, meaning “the people,” provides some clues about the documentary’s subjects. The film features not only teens, black women organizers, the formerly incarcerated, refugees, and textile workers but also those who have more access to power, including preachers, state representatives, and academics. Rather than espousing a “philosophy is for everyone” ethos, the film shows how everyday people produce radical thought.
The film’s portrayal of open-ended dialogue among the populace stems from Taylor’s activist history. She has roots in Occupy Wall Street and is the cofounder of the decentralized resistance network the Debt Collective, which has launched projects including Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee—a “project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, abolishes it.” Along with numerous artists, organizers, and activists, Taylor’s direct-action work seeks to challenge the debt system by organizing communities to fight back against exploitative borrowers and predatory lending. Taylor has made two documentary films before What is Democracy?: Žižek! (2005), a documentary profile of philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and Examined Life (2008), which follows eight philosophers, including Cornel West and Judith Butler, while they discuss their ideas in an urban landscape. She wrote The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, a book that explores how the Internet has exacerbated inequalities, in 2014. Taylor’s companion book to her latest film, Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It’s Gone, was published by Metropolitan Books this month. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tiana Reid.— You’re a filmmaker but you’re also a writer. What does film do that writing doesn’t?
Astra Taylor.— I’m still figuring that out. Film and writing are so different. Obviously films have a visual register; they work on people in a different way because they pull you along, and so there’s an emotional component. I did not go to film school, so I have very simple, funny rules that I’ve gleaned for myself from the world. I started making my first film—which was this intellectual biography of Žižek, with animations—when I was 23, and I just was cobbling together references. And then I heard some film theorist speak, and he said, “Moving images have to move. That’s the whole point.” And I was like, “Oh, right!” In addition to my interest in theories of walking, philosophy, and urban space—moving images have to move! So then my film Examined Life was all of this movement, allowing for a kinetic aspect to every shot. I get a lot of mileage out of really simple epiphanies.
In What is Democracy?, I thought a film would be a good place to explore a kind of intellectual voice that I wanted to see in the world, and an intellectual voice that was generous to other people, an intellectual voice that wasn’t all-knowing. On the page, if I’m writing—and I write nonfiction—it’s my analysis, my voice tying together all of these references, but in the film, I come in, and then I step back and cede the space to other people, allowing for this polyphony. I’m not a good enough writer to have that. It would be so hard to really paint these people. If you read my writing, I never describe people. I’m not a very visual writer. My prose is just very direct.
Argument focused, and it’s about lucidity. I mean, I’m just not a poet. But in the film I am able to conjure people, because I’m literally showing them in a way I just couldn’t do as a writer.
In terms of movement, I’m reminded of that scene of Cornel West in the car in Examined Life where he’s firing off about “desire in the face of death” and structures of domination. The speed at which he’s talking, the New York City traffic in the background, the way he’s leaned toward the front seat, the camera’s zooms—it was all just so hectic.
It was also literally in my old Volvo that cost $900.
There is no air conditioning, which is why the window is open and you can hear all the street sounds.
I thought it was a cab for some reason.
No, it was me driving him around in the car that I literally had to take to the dump a month later.
And he’s in his three-piece suit.
He’s just sweating.
Visually, What is Democracy? has a lot of still shots—vistas, windows, paintings. The “movement,” if I can call it that, happens with groups of people sitting around, talking.
There are interesting overlaps between the two films—Examined Life, What is Democracy?—in the sense that the tagline of Examined Life was “philosophy in the streets.” Space is really central, and in What is Democracy? I organized it by city. I’m still trying to show space and the way ideas inhabit space and yet, with the exception of the one woman going through the ruins, it doesn’t have that peripatetic, follow-people-around vibe. That was partly because I wanted to do something different. I really wrestled with the static shots and the vistas. It’s not just what you see but how things are framed that communicates to the viewer. I wanted everything to be completely unpretentious. Because already when a film is about philosophy or ideas there’s a potential for intimidation. And I don’t aim to intimidate the audience. I wanted the visual approach of the film to be really humble—it’s not so static, it’s not like this art-cinema, wide-frame static shot, there’s no drones, there’s no excess. I establish things and show you where you are, but it’s ultimately about the people and what’s being said.
The group conversation was something I was really excited to experiment with, whether it was through roundtable discussions or more activist-group discussions. And there were two films in particular that I thought made that work in a really interesting way. One is Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy, where he has these sort of symposia, and that opening scene in the ruins is almost a sort of homage to his approach. And then there’s a National Film Board [of Canada] film that my producer highlighted early on called Encounter at Kwacha House. It’s in the sixties, shot in Halifax, and of course Nova Scotia prides itself on having this racial-justice past, but this group of young activists is talking about racism in the community and integration, but the way the group discussion is shot is really energetic—this idea of a group discussion, which doesn’t really have one point at the end.
The film also speaks to a strain of political theory: this idea of deliberative democracy, people hashing things out. The film is trying to embody political philosophy in that way, and it’s also trying to pay homage to my experience in activist groups where sometimes those discussions go in circles, and it goes off the rails. I’ve spent so much time in those spaces. Discussion is circular. You have to listen to people, whether or not they’re making the point that will end all conversation.
That style of communication speaks to the title, What is Democracy? How do you think the film answers the question?
The film doesn’t aim to answer the question. It aims to embody the need to ask the question. I hope the film manages to be inquisitive without losing its ethical and political convictions. The film is pretty critical of the role of capitalism, the antidemocratic influence and the role of xenophobia and racism and all of these ways of othering, and yet the film doesn’t go, “Oh, so then the easy answer is we need to have multiracial socialism.” We would have to enact that. We would have to do it together. The left has dreamt of the international for over a century, but we’re having trouble actually doing it. I hope that if the film has an answer in it, then it is that this is a collective enterprise and we have to take each other seriously as collaborators.
As I was writing the companion book, I read this great essay by W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Ruling of Men.” He talks about excluded wisdom—there’s all this wisdom that’s excluded from democracy—and not just the wisdom of black people and workers, but also women and children, and so there’s all of this knowledge that democracy actually needs. It’s not like, “Oh we should include them to be good people.” I think the film has that aspect of excluded wisdom. If we are going to answer the question “What is democracy?” we can’t just ask our representatives to answer that question for us. We can’t only ask credentialed academics, we have to really ask it of each other. But beyond that, Lea Marin [the film’s producer] and I really didn’t want to provide a pat answer to the question, or to end on a scene that was like, “So now we just need to have a big enough street protest, and we’re going to have democracy.”
One unresolved through line that hit home was the dichotomy between two generations of black politics. On the one hand, the film presents the legacy of King in the form of a charismatic black leader: Cornel West, William J. Barber II, Mickey Michaux—that older-school civil-rights generation—and then on the other hand the film shows the black girls at their school: Aja Monet, Delaney Vandergrift. The black women in that group are kind of saying, “Fuck democracy.” They’re not necessarily offering an alternative and they are certainly not wanting to engage with democracy in the way the older generation did.
You’re the first person to pick up on that. There’s the civil-rights movement, which we hold up—and I even say that we live in a society that pats itself on the back for this. I then tried to present a critique without a red arrow that pointed to the next level. Nobody’s commented on it, but there are a lot of threads in the film . . . Finally some guy came up to me after a screening—he works at the AP and he wrote a book about the mortgage crisis—and he said, “Debt! I love that debt was the thread of your whole film.” He was the first person to say that. But what do you think about that?
I loved how all the black men were filmed in their offices or their places of work, very much the singular dude . . .
I finally found these clips from Martin Luther King Jr. where he was like, “No, movements need a leader.” He was basically like, “I am the embodiment of god on earth.” I mean it’s so not Ella Baker–style feminist organizing. It’s almost like the divine right of kings.
For me and my friends—black women in my generation—critiquing the civil-rights legacy in favor of a more collectivist and feminist practice is our starting point, because we live in the aftermath of that failure. Parts of the film reminded me of this wonderful book called Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership by Erica Edwards, which is about the idea that black modern politics needed this intense black male leader.
It’s about placement, too. Mickey [Michaux] comes early because it’s historically so significant and I don’t want to take away from what history accomplished. For me, one of the most poignant moments was Delaney saying, “So what do we do?” Like, there has been school integration, but schools are not integrated in this country. There are huge strategic political existential questions that we need to ask, and it needs to go far beyond having Martin Luther King Day once a year, not even that we’ve embodied the positive parts of his legacy—the anti-corporatism, anti-militarism, and anti-racism—but also then to go beyond and challenge the leadership issues that you’re raising.
I love the Michaux scene because the kids are literally looking down on him. He’s saying he votes on things that affect them, and then the film presents the other kids in the classroom who don’t have a say in the workings of their own school. That was one of the most compelling scenes for me.
Me too, but a few people have challenged me on it and said that it’s going too far to imply that there needs to be democracy in schools. Or that children need to respect their elders. In the book—it’s only like a paragraph—I write about how when we think of the institutionalization of the memory of the civil-rights movement, it is embodied by people like King, and not only are all the women erased, the women who actually planned the March on Washington and did the work, but children are also erased from that movement. Children played a huge role in integrating the schools. And a 15-year-old refused to give up her seat on a bus nine months before Rosa Parks. That [classroom] scene is really an important one and especially now that more and more high-school students are becoming politically active. I’ve been surprised when people think that’s the controversial moment—that I would actually ask children what they think.
When I was reading the interview you did with Hannah Gold at Jezebel, I had this moment where I realized, “Oh, maybe this is a feminist film.” I feel like the same thing happened to me where I didn’t realize that there was an argument about global capitalism being made—Greece being interlaced with the E.U., Syria interlaced with American violence. But the global as a subject of the film wasn’t something that was necessarily made explicit. Why and how did the global need to show up in the film?
The global is embedded in the local. I mean, this coffee—I don’t know if it came from Mexico or Kenya, in a cup that’s made in China. We live in a global economy, and democracy hasn’t scaled up. We don’t know if democracy can scale up to the global. If the film is about a question, “What is democracy?,” we can’t just stay interpersonal. The film crosses not only a huge geographic horizon but also a time horizon. There’s a temporal element to the film and a spatial element to the film. On a temporal level, especially as production was nearing an end and Trump had become President of the United States, it became more urgent to remind the viewer at the outset that the problems didn’t begin in November 2016. This film is not going to reinforce that idea. And then spatially to put American dilemmas in context. The film focuses on the United States and Greece in part because these are countries that present themselves and are seen by the world as cradles and beacons of democracy. It challenges that.
What’s fascinating to me about the Greek story, and again the film is narrated so it’s not said explicitly, but with Greece you have an Occupy movement, the movement of the squares, they occupy and riot—in the way only Greeks can do. They build a party. They take over the state. They do everything that the left should do—and they lose. There’s a huge strategic challenge in that scene. People are going to have to start collaborating in a big way across borders—the old dream of the international. But just saying that doesn’t make it happen. And then the presence of the Syrian and Afghan refugees in the film (refugees were also coming from Pakistan and North Africa) functions to broaden the scope and to end on a note that’s not facing inwards. I hope it reminds people that our gaze has to be beyond where we are.
One thing about the film is that the examples of democracy in action are so small. You have the workers’ cooperative, the factory, and I actually went there thinking it would be a scene where I would get much more into the nitty-gritty of workplace and economic democracy, but it happened to be two days after the election of Donald Trump. People were happy to talk to me about how it was nice to not have a boss, but what they were really feeling with every cell of their being was just true terror. It also shows the fragility of what they’ve built. And then the free medical clinic in Athens, Greece [a response to the austerity measures imposed on the country by international lenders] that is really just about filling in the cracks that neoliberalism creates. But it’s not because I fetishize the small or think small is beautiful. It’s just that it’s really hard to find credible examples of democracy on a bigger scale.
The question of strategy made me think of the film’s attention to punishment: Greece was punished by the E.U., and in Miami the students got their phones and vending machines taken away. There’s a backlash not simply to activities easily read as political but also to struggles of living that call into question the difference between resistance and refusal. The black teens in the film simply wanted to have access to their cell phones and be served hot meals at their school cafeteria. And then the barbershop scene with Ellie Brett, the ex-convict who served almost a decade in prison, demonstrates how the prison-industrial complex is so pervasive. He asks, “I can’t live anywhere? Work? Vote?” When he’s supposedly “free,” he’s required to do a background check to get a job and an apartment, ultimately carrying around the tainted stamp of prisoner even when he’s no longer caged.
The question of criminal justice, which is really explicit in the scene with Ellie, is also this question of like, OK, a lot of horrible things are legal or have been legal, so we can’t just say democracy is rule of law. Which rule of law, and for whom? If we want to advance social justice, then we’re going to have to break the laws, and we’re going to have to engage in criminal activity. If you’re pushing the envelope, there’s going to be retribution. You’re not going to be patted on the back for advancing democratic struggles. That’s not what’s going to happen. You’re going to be criminalized and punished.
This last question is so boring, but it feels almost necessary to ask. I’m sorry! How do you feel about the film being considered a Trump-era film, because of the topic and the timing? Could you talk more about how it’s not, maybe through the genesis of the project?
I think my fear is that I put all this work into something that is a Trump-era film. And Lea, my producer, she’s just like, “Astra, Trump is a historical fact. It’s OK to have him acknowledged.” The whole thing is that he’s symptomatic. He’s not the cause of the decline of democracy. The film was born of my experience of Occupy and then engaging in debtor organizing. I think that’s always why I’m like, “Strategy! How do we actually accomplish what we want to accomplish?” Because to me film isn’t activism. This is my art project.
I felt like in my organizing I needed to get back to these basic questions of political philosophy. These perennial questions: What’s the relationship between freedom and equality? What is freedom? Is it individual? Is it collective? Is it positive? Is it negative? Or is it a constant struggle, as the civil-rights-movement slogan said, correctly I think? How do we draw the bounds of the demos? How do we rule ourselves? I think there was a moment when I thought that something that seriously engages these questions would be useful to me. I also had the desire to present people thinking on screen who aren’t the people we think of as thinkers. It’s hard to go back to that time, but I think if I had seen the film when I was in my late teens or twenties, I would have felt good about it.
Teens are my ideal audience.
I was also a really critical asshole. I would have found something—“I don’t like the music,” or something. There’s this idea of what an intellectual is that I’m so bored with. And it’s the person who knows, and it’s the film essay that has this voice that presents itself as if it’s uncovering all of the hidden truths. For me an intellectual is someone who is curious about the world and is constantly learning, challenging themselves and engaging in a process of discovery and revelation—if not just assertion. That’s what philosophy began as. Lea and I always have this joke, “What if we revoiced Adam Curtis documentaries with a valley-girl accent?” How authoritative would they sound? Not very. But suddenly all the flaws would be apparent; you’d be like, “That’s a really big leap of logic, chick.” There’s this essay by Mary Beard that I think I reference in one of the other interviews, where she says, “We thought deep voices were deep for so long.” To me the film was also an exercise in framing other voices so that the profundity that is being expressed will also be heard. It’s not just about what you see. How do you create a container so that people can finally be heard in an intellectual milieu? How do you hear the depth of what someone is offering? We give so much credit to certain voices. Imagine Werner Herzog voiced over by an 18-year-old girl. One day I’ll make these projects—and they will probably go viral and eclipse my movie.