By Athena Yuan
Canadian director Astra Taylor’s latest documentary What is Democracy? premiered in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ‘18.
One day before the film’s debut, Ontario premier Doug Ford announced that his government will use the notwithstanding clause, for the first time ever in Ontario, to override a court ruling that blocked his plan to cut Toronto City Council in half.
“This is about preserving the will of the people, this is about preserving democracy,” Ford said during a question period.
What is Democracy? Before the screening, Astra Taylor gave the audience a warm reminder that the film doesn't answer the question. Taylor herself travelled all the way from Athens to Rome; from Greece to the border of United States posing the question to academics, politicians, students, and refugees. The first scene in the documentary opens up with a group of academics discussing Plato’s Republic, and as we travel with Astra, quotes from the Republic break the film into sections that guide the audience to the next level of thinking.
© TIFF Trailers | YouTube
Answers to Astra 's question varies. A young black girl in a Miami elementary school says democracy is having a say in her classroom. An Afghan refugee – a former teacher, stuck in a camp in Europe says democracy is justice. An American teenager, who answers the question while seated on a beach bench, asks if democracy is when someone tells you what to do.
It’s very hard for me, a Chinese girl in her 20’s, to not notice that the majority of those interviewed in the documentary were Western faces, certainly not in their 20’s. Therefore, the democracy they are referring to is different from mine. The truth is, my understanding of democracy comes from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, who’s fundamental ideologies are totally different from Plato’s Republic, in my opinion. Maybe that’s why I found it difficult to identify with anyone in the film.
So, if Astra were to ask me the same question: “What is democracy?” - my answer would be that democracy is having more people with diverse identities, like myself, sit in a cinema and watch a film that talks about democracy as I know it!
*Editor’s note: What is Democracy was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘18.