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Ten Ways of Looking at Democracy: A New Documentary Project Airs Around the World

By Taylor Segrest

With its unprecedented two-week, global "media event" currently underway, the long evolving Why Democracy? project, by Steps International, has finally arrived. Its colorful, egalitarian array of 10 documentary features, each by a filmmaker of a different nationality, is being telecast by upwards of 40 broadcasters around the world (including Estonia) in tandem with an equally energetic and expansive Web campaign. (

"We are trying to merge the best forms of the Internet and television broadcasting to see if we can generate some kind of conversation amongst people from different parts of the world," says executive producer Don Edkins from his office in Cape Town, South Africa. "When we started thinking about the project, it was very much in the line that there is so much misunderstanding amongst different peoples in the world, and the misunderstandings are something that we need to have a conversation about."

The process began in November 2003. "It was really a follow-up to Steps for the Future [the previous endeavor by the same team of producers, which focused on HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa], which was a different way of making a documentary project, where you could involve both a number of commissioning editors and a whole set of documentary filmmakers from [in this case] Southern Africa. But then we decided to take this one global."

Democracy's relevance seems timeless, but the recent clarion call from Myanmar starkly reminds us how desperately some people still seek it. Meanwhile, here in the United States, we are given cause to wonder if we adequately understand and appreciate it. And then there is Iraq. As Why Democracy? creator Nick Fraser (executive producer of BBC's Storyville) puts it, "‘Democracy' is the buzzword of our times."

Why is it that some who don't have democracy are struggling to get it, while others who do have it are struggling to understand what it is? Why are some people using force to try to bring it about for others, while others are protesting non-violently on their own behalf and meeting militant resistance?

"What was really fascinating for me through this whole process was to try and understand how people from different cultures or different societies approach or look at democracy," Edkins reveals. "You know, the West is a very much individually-approached process where the individual is the most important component of democracy, whereas in the East it's about the collective view, or the collective way of saying what democracy should be. But when you take what people are saying and you try to analyze it a bit further, I think everybody is wanting the same thing."

While each film stands alone, it is what happens when viewed in total that makes the Why Democracy? project such a success. It becomes a kaleidoscopic experience, beckoning the viewer to identify unifying patterns of human desire and common causes that span the globe, often unbeknownst to each other; to more accurately observe the intrinsic obstacles of effective governance, effective representation and social justice; to contemplate the tense, but sometimes flourishing zones of interdependence and influence between democracies; to consider the various stages of democracy and their unique realities; and to observe and appreciate the cultural differences between nations struggling in their own time with the idea of democracy and how to secure it.

As for selecting the films and filmmakers for the project, Edkins wryly admits, "We decided to do it democratically, which is not necessarily the best system.

Much has been written and discussed within the documentary community about the labored selection process, but the results are proving less susceptible to criticism: The 10 features and 20 shorts continue to garner praise and rack up festival accolades.

The films--Please Vote for Me (Weijun Chen, China); Campaign! The Kawasaki Candidate (Kazuhiro Soda, Japan); Bloody Cartoons (Karsten Kjaer, Denmark); Dinner with the President (Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan, Pakistan); Egypt, We Are Watching You (Leila Manjou and Sherlef Elkatsha, Egypt); Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, USA); Looking for the Revolution (Rodrigo Vaszuez, Bolivia); For God, Tsar, and Fatherland (Nino Kirtadze, Russia); In Search of Gandhi (Lalit Vachani, India); and Iron Ladies of Liberia (Siatta Scott Johnson and Daniel Junge, Liberia/USA)-- each convey what the producers refer to as a "human story." The human elements in these cases ranges from an Afghani taxi driver who became a fatal victim of US interrogation techniques; to the presidents of Pakistan and Liberia, each remaining popular while employing their own brand of a seemingly requisite authoritarianism to secure the path toward democracy in their extraordinarily tense nations; to third graders in Wuhan, China bringing out the best and worst in each other as they vie for the questionably coveted spot of "class monitor."

In Campaign, filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda follows his friend as he is transformed by the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from self-employed stamp merchant into a viable political candidate. When asked if the campaign he portrays in his film bears any resemblance to the campaigns of the current president of the United States, Soda, a resident of New York since 1993, sites the 2000 US Presidential election debacle as his primary inspiration for making the film. "I had been completely faithful in democracy until then," he states.

Of his subject, Kazuhiko "Yama-san" Yamauchi, Soda says, "We say we were classmates, but he never came to classes." So Soda could not help but wonder why his "bohemian, freedom-loving" friend was running for office with Japan's most conservative political party. In hearing the news, he realized he "could have a ‘microcosmos' to observe the political system."

Even with the film completed, Soda still doesn't have a concrete answer to the question of why his friend answered the endorsement of the LDP so enthusiastically; rather, he has new questions. In hindsight, the filmmaker thinks the best explanation is that his subject "didn't know what he was getting into."

This baptismal experience offered Soda the perfect opportunity for the vérité style of filmmaking that he was aspiring to employ. Inspired largely by Neorealism and Direct Cinema, Soda opines, "If you have too much of a preconceived idea of the film, you become blind to reality," but he quickly clarifies that his film is not objective.

"Objectivity is a fiction. Yama-san is my good friend. I wanted to portray him as a person, not a hero...We need to be very careful about one thing: Documentary filmmakers spend too much time about politics and not enough about making a movie and telling a story."

And, in fact, this final statement surprisingly captures some of the driving ethos of the Why Democracy? project. All of the films concentrate compassionately on understanding their subjects as people struggling within democracy, for democracy and, in some cases, because of democracy--whatever that may be.

"I'm not trying to contribute to democracy by making this film," Soda maintains. "I don't know if I have that power, but it gives you a window that's not provided otherwise in Japan. I had unprecedented access to a campaign operated by our most successful political party...I want to force the audience to participate in an active way."

Sharing this ethos, Iron Ladies of Liberia follows a significantly more qualified and inspiring political figure: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first freely elected female head of state in Africa. After almost two decades of civil war, Liberia's leader finds herself at the center of many long-brewing storms. Filmmakers Daniel Junge, an American, and Siatta Scott Johnson, a Liberian, collaborated in following the resilient Madame President during her harrowing first year of presidency.

Of the filmmaking process, Junge notes, "We had to continually lobby for more access. It was a constant negotiation, because clearly she's got a lot more important things going on than having a filmmaker document her life."

Because of their unique access, Scott Johnson and Junge bare witness to especially edifying and suspenseful moments that cut revealing facets against Sirleaf's presidency as she struggles to give shape to democracy where it previously did not exist.

"I think it's amazing to see a woman with [her] intelligence, charisma and panache be able to work within those relationships where Liberia is clearly not holding the cards," says Junge. "[Madame President is] someone who espouses democratic ideals and is trying to instill [them] in the society, but to do so [she] has to be a bit of a benevolent dictator."

Junge left Liberia with a strong sense of optimism. "I was amazed at the changes that I saw just while I was there." But he remains realistic: "I hope that [the film] presents the complexity of what a leader in a developing country and a developing democracy has to contend with: political compromise and the pitfalls of democracy, [and] the pitfalls of honesty and forthrightness in government." 

In spite of having experienced the worst of Liberia's troubles firsthand, Scott Johnson remains equally and unfalteringly positive. "I'm always optimistic. But I believe that the rising up of Liberia lies in the hands of Liberians, not just the president."

Junge adds, "Siatta helped to contextualize stories, both behind the camera, to give us cues on what was important from the Liberian perspective, but also on camera, to humanize them and to dramatize them."

"I'm kind of a bridge between the president and the people," explains Scott Johnson, recognizing that she plays a vital role in Liberia's emerging democracy. "The media is taking root because Ellen is trying to bring some form of democracy, to let the media be free, but it's hard to do. Sometimes she tries and nobody knows, but most of the press, we know that she is trying. Freedom of speech is taking root gradually in Liberia."

One of Scott Johnson's top priorities now is ensuring that the people of Liberia see the film. "Most people in Liberia don't have television, so we are trying to do a mobile unit that would go to the villages and screen the movie there."

Like Soda, she wants her people to recognize the need for their own active participation in the realization of their hopes for their country. "If we sit on the fence and wait to see if she can do it, it won't get done," Scott Johnson says. "Nothing will."


Taylor Segrest is a Los Angeles-based writer.