What Is Democracy? 

Saturday, Apr. 27, 3:30 p.m., free

Full Frame Theater, Durham

In contrast with the sometimes-obscure offerings of prior years, Moogfest’s free programming this year has a distinctly accessible cast. Nowhere is this clearer than in Astra Taylor’s new film,  in which she asks the most populist, if daunting, question of all: What is democracy? To answer it, Taylor begins by traveling around the world and talking to people. North Carolina is one of her many stops. 

What Is Democracy?, distributed by Zeitgeist Films, takes us to a Trump rally in Raleigh and protests in Charlotte. Guatemalan refugees sew at a cooperative in Morganton. Reverend William Barber delivers a  rousing speech at a Moral March. Delaney Vandergrift, the former student-body president of North Carolina A&T State University, gives a powerful interview about the inherent precarity of being a black activist.

Following Saturday afternoon’s screening at Full Frame Theater (half the tickets will be available for free at the box office), Taylor will discuss the film with Vandergrift, Lea Martin, Jillian Johnson, and Tara Smith. Taylor, whose parents live in Greensboro, says that she finds North Carolina compelling because “It’s a laboratory for legislative minority rule. It’s a warning to the nation. It’s great that people are making inroads, taking back state power, but I think that it speaks to something very broad.” 

Outside of North Carolina, the staging Taylor uses to investigate this amorphous question is expansive. In the memorable first scene, Taylor and the Marxist-feminist scholar Silvia Federici stare up at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a fourteenth-century fresco that depicts the struggle between justice and tyranny, and powerfully foregrounds the high stakes of the question. From Italy, Taylor travels to Greece to unpack the financial crisis and to Miami to speak with trauma surgeons, schoolchildren, and a formerly incarcerated hairdresser. Each conversation gets deeper into the paradox of our political experience—that although we may feel democracy eroding, it has of course also never existed. 

The title of Taylor’s forthcoming book—out May 7 from Metropolitan Books—puts this contradiction succinctly: We May Not Have Democracy, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor does not wax nostalgic about democracy, which she traces from its origins in the slave state of ancient Athens to more recent times, when it was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Instead, the film functions more as a documentary essay intent on defining both the pitfalls and possibilities of democracy’s experiment—a sweeping premise, to be sure, but it’s refreshing to see political theory coaxed out of the academy and grounded in the present moment. 

“We live in a moment of profound political crisis and yet we often take the term that we’re throwing around for granted,” Taylor says. “I think the word democracy, which means, ‘the people have the power’—it’s a very complicated concept. The film tries to explore many of the tensions and obstacles standing in the way of us making more democratic progress. It’s designed to get the audience thinking, as opposed to a kind of straightforward piece of propaganda or call to a single action.” 

Taylor, who has previously made two other films—Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008)—is known for her organizing work around economic justice and Occupy Wall Street. When it comes to Occupy, she’s not shy about articulating its flaws. 

“It was this idealized situation where everybody had a voice, but there was no mechanism by which people had to follow through,” she says. “We talk a lot about voice in this society, you know, ‘people need a voice’—but people need power. I can tell my stories until the cows come home, but if there’s not actual structural change, then what’s the point if I’m just shouting into the void? The role of philosophy is digging into things in a way where, even if there’s not an answer, it helps us identify problems so that we can set goals and make progress.” 

But even when Taylor talks about the potholes of progress, you can detect a note of infectious optimism. The cinematography in the film underscores this openness, with the handheld camera framing every subject in an equal gaze, whether they’re Cornel West or a student at N.C. State. 

The latter interviews feel particularly alarming, with young conservatives admitting that a democratic society is an explicit threat to their status (one young woman states that while democracy does not inspire her, the “ability to climb” does). The film captures a shift—or, return—in conservative thought, in which the democratic ideal seems no longer even bundled into phony talking points about patriotism. 

“There’s a reason that democracy is so quarantined and limited,” Taylor says, “Because it means the power of the people and it means a radical reordering of our society, which a lot of people don’t want.”

With 2020 on the horizon, these observations can be frightening, and potentially frustrating for those looking to walk out of the theater with a specific call to action or a hashtag to tweet. But What Is Democracy? is not a traditional issue documentary: It suggests that philosophical inquiry can build a foundation for change—if, that is, we can first go about defining what it is that we’re fighting for. 

Federici is the last person in the film to take on the titular question. Standing below the fresco, she turns her gaze upward. “Democracy is worth fighting for,” she says. “But we have to be sure how we define it—not from above, always from below.”

sedwards@indyweek.com