What is democracy? takes you on a historical journey. Beginning at the roots of the democratic process in Athens, it builds on philosophical principles of democracy from Plato and Rousseau whilst simultaneously engaging with a wide variety of people and their experiences of democracy.

Beginning with historical paintings, ancient representations are explored and brought up to date with juxtapositions of Trump’s America. The power of this documentary lies in its exploration of so many views. People from all walks of life get a voice, just as democracy was designed to operate.

Astra Taylor talks to a variety of people ranging from intellectuals and academics to vox pops with the public. It is clear that people are highly stimulated by the topic of democracy without much persuasion from Taylor herself, opinions are given freely on the current political climate, and Taylor allows the audience to make conclusions of their own. It is edited superbly and allows the audience to pick up on implications presented by Taylor without her making explicit suggestions.

The questions asked in this documentary are clearly important and relevant due to the many answers with underlying themes of inclusivity, freedom and justice. It teeters on the edge of the question without ever giving you the answer and the diverse settings used as the backdrop simulate the changing nature and fluidity of democracy and how it has been appropriated for good and bad. People in all positions in society have an opinion on the workings of democracy and each voice is validated and given an equal bearing and weight.

The film is, in places, an eye opener on our current understandings of democracy, as well as being relevant to Ireland’s historical referendum, where perhaps democracy shines like a beaming light of hope. This documentary helps us to question who should be included in democracy and whether exclusions are ever viable. In the case of ex-prisoners, minority ethnic groups or refugees whose voices are often silenced in the democratic process it is ironic that they cannot have a voice in a system that is more likely to discriminate against them. This documentary vividly explores economic inequality by highlighting the importance of education and the lack of democracy is depicted from a focus group with school children. When they are asked whether they get a say in how their school operates, this opens up a dialogue that is reflective of how society is conducted as a whole and interestingly gives children a voice, something very rarely done within democracy.

What is Democracy? is incredibly thought provoking and allows the audience to question the current system’s ability to operate in the interest of all people. From Trump to Greek bankruptcy and ancient Athens, this documentary doesn’t fail to make you think about the supposed democratic process that is operating and whether we could ever govern ourselves. It is impossible for this documentary to answer the question as, realistically, nobody has the answer. But it does allow the question to be explored effectively from a variety of perspectives.

4 stars

Image: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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