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Review: Documentary asks ‘What Is Democracy?’

(L-R) - Silvia Federici and filmmaker Astra Taylor in a scene from “What is Democracy.” Credit: Zei
Italian researcher Silvia Federici and filmmaker Astra Taylor in the documentary “What is Democracy?”
(Zeitgeist Films)

“What is Democracy?” is not only the title of the thought-provoking documentary from writer-director Astra Taylor, but the big question posed to most of the film’s interview subjects, a wide and diverse swath that ranges from academics, theorists and politicos to everyday kids and adults.

The definitions of democracy proposed here are as expansive as the respondents themselves: “Justice for everybody!,” “Freedom!,” “Self-rule!” and so on. The chief takeaway: One of the key words in our political language may be more open to interpretation and subjectivity — and clear-cut parameters — than we ever realized.

But that doesn’t make the movie any less meaningful or cogent. In fact, it may make it even more valuable, especially in light of these current, deeply divided times in which longstanding norms of institutional democracy are being put through the wringer both domestically and abroad.

Taylor (“Zizek!,” “Examined Life”) thus asks us to reexamine ancient and more recent history in an effort to understand how we ended up with a world in which, it’s posited here, the social body is being “sawed apart” and democracy has been co-opted by corporations and special-interest groups. Hint: It didn’t happen overnight.

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Taylor and her cameras travel the globe, focusing largely on the U.S. and Greece, in a kind of philosophical search for truths — if not “the truth” — about democracy, which the filmmaker dubs “an ideal and a reality, a rousing aspiration and a devastating disappointment.” The film, which holds together quite well even if it’s not that specifically structured, bears out Taylor’s assessment in captivating and persuasive fashion.

Woven throughout the movie, as a running commentary, is Taylor’s stop in Siena, Italy, for a visit with researcher-activist-educator Silvia Federici, who offers docent-like illumination of the 14thcentury fresco “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” This colorful, heavily symbolic civic mural by Ambrogio Lorenzetti contrasts themes of justice and tyranny in ways that disturbingly resonate today. That modern banking originated in Italy adds a vital dimension to Federici’s articulate dissection.

Trips to Raleigh, N.C., and Miami net an array of vivid, at times powerful thoughts on such topics as equality, economic disparity, classism and responsibility from such observers as pastor-activist Rev. William J. Barber II (he also founded the Moral Mondays movement), who gives a barn-burner of a rally speech; longtime, now-retired North Carolina General Assembly member Henry M. “Mickey” Michaux Jr.; a group of emergency room doctors; a hair cutter and ex-con who imparts smart, unique perspective from his time behind bars; a Guatemalan seamstress who tears up over President Trump’s attitude toward immigrants; and a group of public school students with fairness on their minds.

Elsewhere, we’re treated to the soaring, scholarly stylings of activist-philosopher (and author of 2004’s “Democracy Matters”) Cornel West; UC Berkeley professor and political theorist Wendy Brown’s imposing intellectualism; and an exciting lecture by famed social justice advocate Angela Davis, each of whom deliver prismatic takes on the notion of democracy.

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Taylor, often seen here on camera in interview mode, also devotes a stirring amount of time to her journey to Greece (home to that “cradle of democracy” Athens), wherein she movingly covers Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees arriving on the country’s shores (including gripping memories from a young Syrian woman) as well as the effects of the nation’s recent debt crisis. There are also intriguing chats with former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou; Course to Freedom political party chief Zoe Konstantopoulou; and Efimia Karakantza, an assistant professor of ancient Greek literature.

And let’s not forget the prescient quotes from seminal Greek philosopher Plato’s Socratic dialogue “The Republic” that are provocatively peppered throughout the film.

It all adds up to a kaleidoscopic, somewhat random, yet always involving approach to a major concept that, despite the wealth and breadth of Taylor’s offerings here, feels like just the first step in surveying anew where democracy stands — and falls — in our present universe. But what a crucial first step it is.

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‘What is Democracy?’

In English, Greek, Arabic and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Playing: Starts Feb. 22, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Feb. 25-26 only, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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