This is a documentary that deals exactly with what the title says. It explores what we mean by democracy now and what it has meant in the past. It looks at how fragile democracy has been and continues to be and draws on Greek philosophy – Plato, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers – Rousseau and modern political thinkers – Cornell West. The director told us at the start that the film originated four years ago before Trump or Doug Ford or other more recent troubling anti-democratic leaders, but serendipitously it was released at a time when we are all thinking about the state of our democratic institutions and how they are threatened. She also told us up front that she does not have the answers to where we are headed or how to preserve our democracy, but she does want to challenge us to think about what democracy really is and not take it all for granted. The film is not perfect, but I attended with a very politically engaged friend and afterwards we had much to talk about so, despite its flaws, I would say this is a very important film that raises many questions we need to consider as we confront our current situation. I fear I might enter into a long and tedious academic paper here, so I will wind up with a brief description of the thesis of the film. What is shown clearly is that we do not all share the same idea of democracy. Some see it as justice, others as personal freedom, some as socialist or communitarian action. We don’t all agree about who gets to participate, how we should be governed, or what needs to to be done to preserve whatever democracy we decide to implement. Plato argued, and Cornell West agreed, that democracy has within it the seeds of its own downfall. The trick is to see and understand that and find ways to preserve it. How we define it and how we preserve it is up to us, but it is clearly under threat and how we respond in the next short while will be critical to whether or not we continue to see ourselves as living in democracy. The director is writing a companion book that will delve into these themes in more depth and the film will be used by her and her colleagues to continue the conversation over the next several months. On a final note the film was funded primarily by our own National Film Board and that made me proud.
I chose this film late in the process as I was free on the morning in question. I decided to take a chance as I have, in the past, stayed away from the Wavelengths program at TIFF. This category of films is described as: Daring, visionary and autonomous voices. Works that expand our notion of the moving image. I think I will continue to avoid these films. I am always cautious of film descriptions that suggest the film will be “challenging” or “daring” etc. and I should continue to follow my own advice. This film is a trip into a black community in the US that has been traumatized by a recent killing of a local by suspected KKK members but suffers from many aspects of racism and poverty. We are treated to endless talk by citizens in meetings, door to door talks and other events with absolutely no focus or perspective. I finally had to leave because the film was going no where with dealing with the issues or themes and had literally no structure. No question it was depressing and troubling, but I did not find it challenging or daring just confused. Sorry Wavelengths I will not be back.
This was the best movie of the week and I do not expect it to be surpassed in the remaining days. I was with the second audience to see the film and apparently the most enthusiastic. We were at the Elgin, so a huge crowd, and as the director and cast came on stage for a Q and A after the final credits they received a standing ovation that lasted it seemed at least 5 minutes. They were clearly stunned and did not know how to respond when we just kept clapping and cheering. So why?, I hear you ask.
The film is a classic road trip film but based on real events. A black jazz pianist (and very well to do gentleman) from New York City, Dr. Don Shirley, decides to take his trio on a tour through the southern US in 1964 at a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws and customs were still very much in place. He knew he was going into difficult places so he decides to hire a driver/protector to accompany him on the 8 week trip. Enter Viggo Mortensen in maybe his best acting performance ever. Mortensen plays a third generation Italian New Yorker, working class background, who has recently been laid off from his job as a bouncer for the Copacabana Club which is undergoing “renovations” following a “fire”. The mob is a part of Mortensen’s community shall we say. Mortensen’s character is also not exactly comfortable with those not of Italian extraction shall we say although he is clearly at heart a good guy. He takes the job a bit reluctantly because he needs the money. The two leave in a car rented by Shirley’s recording studio and we are taken through the 8 week trip during which we learn much about Don Shirley’s and Mortensen’s characters as they slowly bond into good friends. The film is funny, heart warming, does not shy away from the racism of the time and is brilliantly scripted and acted. I can’t say too much more except to tell you this movie comes out in November, is headed to the Oscars and if Viggo doesn’t get a nomination and even a Best Acting Oscar there is no justice in the world. The title is from an actual guide for black travelers in the deep south. It was called The Green Book and listed all the hotels and restaurants where blacks were allowed to eat and sleep while in the south.
Peter Farelly, the director is maybe best known as the director of Dumb and Dumber among other comic classics but this film goes far beyond his other work. The actors all praised his talents and dedication to the film. During the Q and A the actors were asked to tell stories about their time working on the film and how they all came to bond with each other as well. There were several good stories but I liked best the one told by Mahershala Ali who plays Don Shirley. One day while filming at one of the Green Book hotels that still exists, an elderly black man who was watching and lived across the street asked about the film. When he learned it was about Don Shirley he got excited and told them he had lived there for decades and remembered that not only did Don Shirley stay there but also Little Richard, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke among many others. He knew them all it seems and partied with them. Ali say it lent a reality for him as to what the film was about, how sad those times were and how accurate this film was in documenting that time.
I want Oscar nominations for the writing, the director, Viggo and Ali, and for the music. I did not know Don Shirley’s music and went home to listen to some more. It is superb jazz. The film has a great music score and features many examples including a great set in a blues bar near the end of the film. Look him up. See the film.
Unfortunately, this was likely the poorest film of the week so far. While I love documentaries, I have to admit this one seemed to get lost in its topic. There is no question that robotics poses many problems for us. Not only are militaries looking at actual killer robots to use in combat, we are faced with robots killing jobs and even killing human to human contact. Even the robots that are designed to help may kill us through poor design or malfunction. The movie tries to address all these themes but really offers no coherent approach or offer any kind of solution. Going in I was aware of the military threat, the end of jobs for taxi drivers, truck drivers, and many service and manufacturing jobs. I was hoping to see some direction forward. None is really offered, and the film also does a mediocre job of describing the problem. If you have concerns in regard to the whole area of robots and robotics I would suggest you turn to some recent alternatives. I can recommend the following as a start: Terminator, Alien, Aliens, Minority Report, Ex Machina, and of course 2001 – “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave….”