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(Acclaimed director Astra Taylor’s What is Democracy?  opens Jan. 16, 2019 at IFC Center in New York via Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber, followed by theatrical engagements nationwide. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month to help keep us going?) 

An absorbing, meditative ramble through the history of democracy and shifting attitudes towards it, director Astra Taylor’s What Is Democracy? offers the art of thoughtful conversation as an antidote to the fraught political hysteria of the public sphere. If small groups of people can come together and reason their way towards an understanding of the value of shared participation in governance – much like the students in Plato’s Academy of the 4th century BCE – then surely there is hope for humanity, right? Unfortunately, though Taylor’s tone is measured, throughout, her prognosis for our future is dire. As American philosopher Cornel West states at the conclusion, quoting 19th-century Russian author Dostoevsky, we humans mostly want to be ruled, rather than rule ourselves. Sad, but based on the growing evidence of the current state of the world, apparently true.

Globe-hopping from Siena, Italy, to various locations in Greece, to the United States and then back to Greece (Athens being the cradle of democracy, after all), Taylor interviews activists, political theorists, politicians, refugees and more, gradually peeling back layer after layer of the startlingly wide range of thoughts about a philosophy in decline. One hopeful note is that the trajectory of human freedom (not the same thing as democracy, but related) is an uneven line that circles back on itself, repeating mistakes and experiments yet never quite abandoning its course. We have given up power before and yet still found our way back to it. Unfortunately, with the structures of today’s linked economies and the rise of, as philosopher Wendy Brown calls them, “supranational” organizations that operate in the shadows, we are now entering a period where resistance to those who would rule us is becoming more difficult.

As depressing as all this seems – I found the vacuous wealthy Miami teens interviewed on the street about their thoughts on democracy especially repugnant – there is optimism in the dialogue. From the Syrians in Greece who long for a better life to Italian feminist scholar Silvia Federici to Greek lawyer Zoe Konstantopoulou and so many more, there are smart people on our planet with ideas on how to motivate the species towards its own salvation. Since might so often makes right, however, their quiet reflectiveness may not be enough to save us, but at least we’ll all go down having a great intellectual meal. Still, before I die, I’d like a nice dessert of the triumph of liberty and justice, please. Nothing Taylor can do, of course, but be forewarned and bring your own digestif.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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