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What Is Democracy?

True North | True North | High School Outreach

With democracies around the world grappling with demagoguery, social and economic inequality, and the rule of corporate interests in the political sphere, Astra Taylor’s timely documentary reflects on a word we too often take for granted. The director, known for her writing, Occupy Wall Street activism, and previous philosophical documentaries Žižek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008), crafts an expansive, urgent and accessible essay that investigates democracy’s origins while evidencing its contemporary challenges.

The journey spans millennia and continents, traveling from Athens, the birthplace of democracy, all the way to Trump’s America, and covering a wide range of issues—the birth of capitalism, the Greek economic crisis, mass incarceration, concerns about voter suppression efforts in the United States, and more. As Taylor interviews a diverse cast, including leading scholars Cornel West and Silvia Federici, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, activists, migrant workers, and asylum seekers, the questions continue to arise: in whose hands does power lie in our society? How do we strive towards justice, equality, and freedom?

What is Democracy? inspires a conversation on a slippery concept that is often invoked but rarely analyzed. The film effortlessly interweaves the past and the present, and theoretical rumination with personal testimony, to create a persuasive case on how the foundations of democracy can help us rethink and rebuild the institution today.


Director Astra Taylor
Country of Origin: Canada
Year: 2018
Running Time: 107 mins
Format: DCP
Classification: PG - Coarse & sexual language
Language:In English, Arabic, Greek, Spanish with English subtitles
Related Links: Trailer | Tyee Article
Featuring: Wendy Brown, Angela Davis, Silvia Federici, Zoe Konstantopoulou, Henry M. “Mickey” Michaux, Jr., Cornel West
Executive Producer: Anita Lee
Producer: Lea Marin
Cinematographer: Maya Bankovic
Editor: Robert Kennedy
Music: Heather McIntosh
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada
Distributor: National Film Board of Canada

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