Film Review: WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? (Canada 2018) ***1/2

What Is Democracy? Poster

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB)’s WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? just nominated for Best Canadian Documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle is the kind of educational film made for students to watch in schools where lots of information is provided on the subject as if coming directly from a textbook on democracy.  The origin of the word is also explained in the film, to illustrate the amount of detail going into its research.

The film questions what it means to want to live in democracy.  Therefore the question asked is what the word even means.  WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? is an idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spanning millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Celebrated theorists Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, and Angela Davis are joined by trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers and others, in a film speaking to the camera or interviewed by Taylor, that connects past and present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, to provoke critical dialogue about our future.

Though not really a feminist film, it should be noted (not a bad thing) that most of the interviewees and those involved in the making of the film including the director (who doubles her function as interviewer) are women.

  Trump is given screen time. Surprisingly Trump is not dismissed as a bad President but given due respect as well as reasons he got elected.  An identical situation can be applied to Brexit.  The masses are fed up with the elected who have forgotten the people. The Democrats have forgotten the people, says one American.  So when Trump goes down to the people at their level, he won their confidence.

An eye-opener is also revealed on how Americans are cheated on democracy in voting, especially the poorer and black parts of the United States.

Also interesting is the segment on Greece.  Greece has been in financial crisis and has to be bailed out by the other European Union countries that claim that Greece have lived beyond their means and now they have to pay. The film reveals another side that does not reflect well on the banks and the authorities.

There are lots in the film that will titillate the mind.  After all, it is the philosophers who had a big deal to do with the concept of democracy, as the film implies.  The film’s best segment has young students talking about democracy.  They talk about the results of their complaints in school, one in articular that resulted in the school taking away the vending machines.  They claim that the teachers say that they get paid regardless what they do and that the students need to go to college to success and be happy.  Yet they do not set the example.  It is a very moving and realistic situation that touches the heart.

The film summarizes democracy simply as justice – the right to self rule.  The film also demonstrates selective democracy and that real democracy is practically unattainable.  

The film will be back in the city on January 26 at Ryerson University at the DemocracyXChange Summit—a new annual event co-founded by the Open Democracy Project and the Ryerson Leadership Lab—where Taylor will deliver a keynote address, followed by an evening screening of her film.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/266692157

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