Democracy In the Driver’s Seat

By Gail Gilbert | Drama
Strangers on a bus rally behind a passenger to catch the bus ahead.

A woman tries to catch a bus, but it pulls away before she can get on. Desperate to catch up, she gets the next bus, imploring the driver to catch up with the bus that just got away. Her husband is on the bus, and she needs to catch him — it’s a matter of life and death, she says.

The bus driver seems immune to her growing urgency, until other passengers on the bus join the cause, urging the driver to catch the bus so the woman can catch her husband. Eventually a sense of camaraderie grows contagious, and soon the whole bus is caught up in the chase, cheering the driver on — only to discover the final destination is not what they expected.

Writer-director Gail Gilbert’s short thriller uses the push and momentum of suspenseful, kinetic filmmaking to create a powerfully provocative social parable that is guaranteed to spark debate and conversation about the political process.

The intention to comment upon political systems may be directly announced by the film’s title, but its storytelling doesn’t focus on lawmakers, policy, the electoral process or any direct aspect of politics. Instead, it confines its narrative scope to one particularly dramatic ride on public transportation, where a multiplicity of people of different races, ages, socioeconomic status and gender share the same space.

Deft, quick-moving camerawork and editing quickly establish the particular dynamic of public transportation, where people share tight spaces with a certain degree of detachment and remove, as well as the central character’s dilemma. But as the woman’s desperation escalates, so does the pacing and drama.

Though its precise yet tautly paced command of craft, the film excels at capturing the emotional contagion that happens when one person takes up “the cause,” followed by another, and then another. The sharing of feeling is deeply enjoyable and uplifting for both the bus passengers and the audience, establishing a genuine community in a space where people seemed merely to tolerate one another just to get from point A to B with as little fuss as possible. But then the writing flips the story on its head, upending expectations with a shocking ending that leaves passengers wondering just what happened, what role they played in it and just how easily they — and the audience — were pulled in.

In many ways, “Democracy In the Driver’s Seat” is not a subtle film. Instead, it’s structured like a compelling, powerfully engaging extended action sequence: it has the palpable pull that an expertly calibrated mix of editing, camerawork and acting can possess in service of chasing a thrill. But with its title and its ending, it clearly comments on just how easily emotions can drive a collective with enough momentum to take on a life of its own, without checks, balances or critical thinking to slow it down. The fact that the film is a parable keeps it from becoming partisan, which may be its smartest move as a piece of entertainment. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, it should provoke thought and discussion, especially as it applies to real-world and current-day situations.

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