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  • Director Paul Dano attends the premiere of Wildlife, during the Toronto International Film Festival, on Sept. 10, 2018.VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

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Here’s a weird one: Before Monday morning’s public screening of Errol Morris’s controversial new Steve Bannon doc American Dharma, TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers appeared before the packed audience at the Scotiabank Theatre to clarify that he does not like Steve Bannon. And, more than that, that Bannon (and I’m paraphrasing here) represents values to which the Toronto International Film Festival is diametrically opposed.

Given the current “platforming” debate around Bannon specifically, and the question of whether or not his brand of narrow-minded nativism is even worth hearing, such a curious repudiation of a film’s subject matter may just be a bit of compulsory apologetics on the part of TIFF brass. But beyond this, as Powers put it, “It’s important to know our enemies.”

Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

TIFF 2018 has been suffused with docs with similarly educational programs. Pertaining to the phenomenon of renewed right-wing populism, the fest is hosting, in addition to Morris’s film, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana and Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes – to name just a few of the non-fiction entries. Distinct among these is What Is Democracy?, from Canadian-American journalist-activist-musician-filmmaker-multihyphenate Astra Taylor (The Examined Life, Žižek!).

A still from Astra Taylor's What is Democracy?Courtesy of TIFF

Where other films on the subject are more microcosmic in their approach, zooming in on a given subject (Bannon, Ailes) or region (the Trump-supporting Midwestern small town of Wiseman’s film), Taylor takes the long view. What Is Democracy? faces the present by taking us through the past, examining the crisis facing democracy by looking at the political and philosophical origins of the concept, interrogating its uses and abuses, and sincerely pondering the question of whether or not what we call democracy is even worth fighting for.

“There’s a certain tendency in the media – a present-ism,” says Taylor, in a boardroom of the National Film Board's offices on a miserably drizzly Monday morning. “There’s this now-ness. You know: ‘This is unprecedented!’ and ‘Trump isn’t us!’ And it is terrible in novel ways, what’s going on right now. But there’s been a long trajectory leading to this.” Instead of dipping into the usual shallow reservoir of stock historical references, which tend to fudge some straight line between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump, What Is Democracy? returns to the ancient Greek agora, to Plato’s Republic, and to the historic and literary sources that nurtured the seeds of self-governance. Yet Taylor isn’t just substituting present-ism for past-ism, or indulging a misguided fetish for the “foundations” of Western liberalism. “It’s not that you can go back to ancient Greece and find literal truths,” she clarifies. “It’s not like there was some ideal form of democracy that these people just grabbed from the heavens. But going back to basics helps us understand that the problems we’re facing aren’t brand new.”

For Taylor, the problem is not that democracy is under threat from some new form of populism (embodied by Trump, Bannon, Breitbart, Fox News etc.), but that democracy itself is always imperfect and structurally undermined by its own inherent contradictions. This is something Plato knew as far back as the fourth century BC, when he diagnosed how the surplus of freedom that democracy produces would result first in decadence and then, finally, despotism. The proliferation of possible and permissible beliefs would breed fractious infighting; a chaos that demands order. “The insatiable desire for freedom,” he wrote, “occasions a demand for tyranny.”

What is Democracy? interrogates the political present by exploring the past.Courtesy of TIFF

If there’s anything like encouragement here, it comes in the modestly wizened understanding that democracy has yet to historically manifest itself in any ideal way. As the philosopher, activist and preacher Cornel West points out in What Is Democracy?, the American “democratic tradition” has long excluded people of colour, the indigenous, women, etc., and has only really been a democracy for a fraction of its long history. If democracy exists, Taylor’s film argues, it is only as a possibility that we are striving toward and struggling to apprehend. It is not a thing, but a process, which is always in the process of becoming. It’s still a bitter pill, to be sure, and its lessons are much harsher than those offered by many of the other political docs at TIFF 2018. (“Impact films,” Taylor calls them).

Movies like Fahrenheit 11/9 – which opened to rapturous response from the Toronto audience, and which beats the well-worn drum of hope and change and rising up to “resist” Trump – always call to mind one of my favourite bits from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. Near the end, the book’s protagonist (a professor in an academic Hitler-studies department, of all things) realizes that a nun he meets doesn’t actually believe in God. “Our pretense is a dedication,” she tells him. “Someone must appear to believe.… Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe, but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers.”

Something very similar, I worry, is accomplished through “impact films.” They become a kind of talisman through which we can engage in politics, without actually having to engage in politics. Watching them satisfies a latent desire for political action. They believe so we don’t have to – and often, I’m not so convinced that they even believe. To use a lower-brow, less lit-snobby cultural reference: Impact filmmaking can become like the dummy birthday cake Marge Simpson mocks up on her daughter’s birthday that exists purely so Homer, ever the half-wit glutton, won’t ruin the real one. As much as big-ticket political documentaries might seem to encourage substantial systematic change, they can just as often distract from that change.

Astra Taylor’s dedication is more than mere pretense, however. In additional to her writing, she also devotes herself to community activism, organizing, door-knocking and other unglamorous aspects of political life. And this, in its way, is what What Is Democracy? also advocates for: activism and engagement at a local level, in a way that expands the horizons of democracy by bringing those alienated by politics into the fold.

“Flip through your TIFF catalogue,” says Taylor. “You see a film about Trump. A film about Bannon. A film about Putin. A film about Gorbachev. It’s this great, white, old-man version of history. My film is saying that these aren’t the only people in democracy. These aren’t the people who advance the forward march of democracy. My film performs a deconstruction of that approach.” And there’s the key word: performs. As a historical and philosophical inquiry, What Is Democracy? is as smart as any film at TIFF 2018. And one of the few that’s smart enough to know that it’s only an inquiry, that it’s not activism but a performance of it.

It may be deeply and thoughtfully political. But it’s not politics. Understanding the distinction is key to awakening anything like true insight into our current muddle and to encouraging anything like meaningful change. Otherwise, we may remain all too content to, as the apocryphal quote attributed to a great and woefully out-of-touch royal goes, gorge ourselves on mocked-up dummy cakes.