An all-nighter spent skimming Plato’s “Republic” would be a less hurried undertaking than “What Is Democracy?,” a hugely ambitious documentary from the Canadian director Astra Taylor (“Zizek!”). Like democracy itself, the movie assumes such a broad mandate and has such noble intentions that indicating its shortcomings seems almost beside the point.
The overarching concept here is to explore the philosophical underpinnings of democracy by talking with scholars and visiting the present-day sites of Plato’s Academy and the Agora in Athens. Using quotations from “The Republic” as glue, Taylor travels elsewhere and finds imperfections in the democratic process.
In the United States, Cornel West points out instances when majority rule hasn’t always been desirable, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown v. Board of Education both arrived by fiat. Many of the film’s most stinging moments deal with the degree to which true democracy has rarely if ever existed for African-Americans.
And in the birthplace of democracy, Taylor traces how the debt crisis put Greece in a bind between the national will and the meta-democracy of the European Union, which itself, the movie suggests, was beholden to the decidedly undemocratic whims of finance.
Some of the past-present dialectics bear fruit. It’s instructive to see the concept of oligarchy enshrined in a 14th-century fresco in Siena, Italy, or to learn how the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes’s ideas for the organization of civic space facilitated mingling that would foster a sense of the common good.
Yet the movie has a tendency to take arguments to overbroad ends (should grade school be a democracy?) and is inevitably unwieldy. It’s easy to imagine a more cogent film that weighted either philosophy or reportage more heavily. But I’m willing to put it to a vote.