Democracy – a call to arms

David Bernet’s profoundly European film, Democracy, is that rare thing, a documentary about the complex system that is democracy, and a triumphant democratic law-making process at that.

Rosemary Bechler
24 June 2016

"Democracy", David Bernet, 2015. All rights reserved.

"Democracy", David Bernet, 2015. All rights reserved.David Bernet’s profoundly European film, Democracy, follows three years, pre- and post-Snowden revelations, in the lives of Jan Philipp Albrecht MEP (German Greens) reporting to EU Commissioner Viviane Reding. Here they are steering through controversial new regulation on data privacy rights, against resistance from big businesses working with large amounts of personal data. This is a film to live with and to revisit, so vertiginous are the insights into our modern conditions of existence. But it is also a thing of beauty, filling us with wonder at the digital world that we are in.

The regulation, one of the most important and historic pieces of legislation on behalf of European citizens for our times, updates and modernises the principles of the 1995 directive, setting out the rights of the individual and establishing the obligations of those responsible for the processing of the data. It establishes the methods for ensuring compliance as well as the scope of sanctions for those in breach of the rules.

The film opens in 2014 with European Parliamentary approval, before leaping two years back to the start of the negotiations, when Albrecht is first tasked with steering and overseeing the entire process: discussing with lobbyists, think tanks, and civil rights activists, chairing the ‘shadow meetings’ of parliamentary groups, drafting and redrafting, talking with colleagues in the corridors of power, and reporting to the EU Commissioner.

This is that rare thing, a film about the complex system that is democracy, and a triumphant democratic law-making process at that. As the filmmaker was able to assure his audience after last night’s showing at Open City Docs Fest, agreement was finally reached between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament in December 2015, one month after the film’s international premiere in Amsterdam.

We film-audience are not to know this. From the cinemascope opening when Albrecht checks his phone before taking up his position, smiling at us against a backdrop of Greek classical colonnade as the title ‘Democracy’ fills the screen, we are spared little of the epic process, its high points, troughs and sheer scale, whether it is people walking miles along those corridors of power, the rows of parliamentarian mailboxes that activists have to keep well-briefed, the number of languages routinely offered to the press, vast rooms with electronic vote-counting, or the record-breaking 4,000 amendments for this single piece of EU legislation piled in volumes of dead trees that only add to the Green MEP’s moments of despair. Abjuring the regalia of yellow stars, limousines and national flags, it is shot in a monochrome that forces us to concentrate on nothing but the political process.

So what makes ‘Democracy’ such an utterly compelling, heroic, humorous, suspenseful and ultimately satisfying 100 minutes? Of course, it has everything to do with the people involved. Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights who helped us launch our "Human rights and the internet” page last week, is a star in Albrecht’s supporting cast, a clear-eyed prophet whose knowledge of Brussels like the back of his hand only begins with his cycling. “The way of being effective in Brussels”, he inducts the equally determined Polish activist and recovering banking lawyer, Katarzyna Szymielewicz, “is being there early”, and compared to the average citizen whose rights are in contestation here – everyone in the film has in one way or another ‘got there early’, as data became the new oil.

Katarzyna too has her moments of clairvoyance, particularly after the Snowden bombshell is dropped in 2013: “Surveillance is not about knowing with whom you spend your nights. It really is about managing populations; managing people.” But so too do those on the business side of the equation: John Boswell, of Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS); business lawyer Paolo Balboni; Linklaters partner Tanguy Van Overstraeten.

The heroism and the humour, however, mainly emanate from the force field around Rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht and his faithful guide and companion, policy adviser Ralph Bendrath. Albrecht, from the moment that we first meet him, attempting to follow the instructions manual on how to tie his tie, has something of the ineffable resilience and ingenuity of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little man’ in Modern Times, while Bendrath’s face, entirely impassive in the encounter with credit-selling lobbyists, can break into the sunniest of hippy smiles on the slightest provocation. But these two civic activists are also twenty-first century Homeric noble warriors, going in to fight for us, careers on the line, with no armour in sight – only their expertise, social and tactical intelligence, dedication to their cause, and capacity for sheer hard work to assist them.

Viviane Reding’s ‘favourite rapporteur’ is gifted with eloquence when it counts, offering us perhaps the central metaphor of the film: “ Working in the European Parliament can feel like you’re on some huge tanker. There’s no one at the helm. But we all try to steer it by shifting weight around. Sometimes I feel like I’m up on deck, trying to steer the ship by guiding everyone to move to one side or the other. After a while, the ship may finally start moving. But even then you’re not really sure, because you’re way out at sea…”.

Watching this epic tale of law-making unfold on the eve of the UK’s EU referendum, it is impossible not to feel that its graphic metaphors, beautifully conveyed, offer everything which is missing from our referendum debate, a tangible image of European democracy at work on a scale that can cope with a globalising world; a David and Goliath story in which human camaraderie and a supportive hand on the shoulder, plus Alan Rusbridger’s stunning appeal to the lawmakers to ‘protect us’ which is the drama’s turning point, can still tip the balance towards euphoric success. Asked to raise our hands at the end of the showing if this gave us more confidence or less in the EU, for this small London audience at least, there was a large majority in favour.

But of course, this is not the whole story. In one recent openDemocracy contribution commenting on the ‘misalignment of the Brexit Referendum’, Fernando Betancor writes: “it is not asking the right questions. "Leave" and "Remain" are stark contrasts in a world that never presents binary choices.” Yet, for all its European monochrome complexity, the aesthetic of Democracy is precisely one of stark contrast. Its opening sequence follows a helicopter flying over Athens, en route to the first EU Council meeting of 2014 at the stately Zappeion Exhibition Hall, built in the 1880s for the first modern Olympic games. We shall see the same helicopter disappearing over Parthenon’s ruins at the end. As we watch, the whirring figure in a grey, perhaps smog-filled, sky steadily changes to a ghostly white negative of itself, a spectral spaceship against a pitch black background. The same negative effect suddenly turns the Brussels population hurrying past the gleaming facades of the European Parliament into the personal data which has become ‘the money’ for our times. This film’s drama is a Manichean battle of black and white over consent and over the basic rights of the individual as they are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which as Viviane Reding ringingly urges her colleagues, “is our compass in everything we do.”

Variously described as “a big tension between big data and privacy” or the need to “square the circle between the legitimate interests of citizens while not hampering business and innovation”, or in Reding’s reproof to the delaying tactics of EU governments, “It seems we don’t need time to eliminate the rights, but we need a lot of time to augment the rights” – the fact is as Albrecht quietly explains, “99% of the lobbying in Brussels is by companies… but millions of citizens have their interests too… No one has the right to claim their interests are worth more than that of the citizens.”

Bernet was unsuccessful in extracting a reply from Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and the other data giants, who stayed out of this frame, although they were everywhere present in the process. The closest we come is Erica Mann, Managing Director of Public Policy for Facebook, pointing out the new use of data mining in Obama’s election campaigns to shape public opinion more effectively. Knowing her audience of MEPs well, she invites them to ponder their own difficulties in the popularity stakes with the turn-out of European voters, asking rather disingenuously in a way that suddenly invokes Katarzyna’s chilling phrase, ‘Managing populations’ – “What is actually so bad about this? ”

So, for all its elegance this is as close as democracy gets to war, and the stakes just as high, the lives of millions of people. This morning as we awaken to Brexit confirmed, and ponder the future, I am haunted by Joe McNamee’s words spoken straight to camera and to us: “People will realise how important this process is, in two, three or five years. But then, the process will have passed.”

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