NEW YORK — Many believe that if Donald Trump hadn’t hired former head of Breitbart News Steve Bannon to be his late-in-the-game campaign manager, he wouldn’t be president today. Steve Bannon sure believes that.
The common wisdom is that weaponizing the hate that lurked on the internet put Trump over the top, but blowback came with the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally in August 2017. After the Nazi chants and the murder of a counter-protestor, Bannon was dismissed from the Trump White House.
What has the man who initiated the Muslim Travel Ban been doing since then? He’s actually taken his show on the road to Europe, where he’s been meeting with nationalist candidates, forming a coalition simply called “The Movement.” It claims to be in support of working people, but has at its core the same Trumpian furnace of xenophobia.
Jewish-American film director Alison Klayman was embedded with Bannon during his travels. Her previous films include a portrait of Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) and an exposé of the mental health drug industry (“Take Your Pills”). Now, armed with a camera and aided by Bannon’s innate desire to always be in front of one, her new film “The Brink” (opening this week) is a fast-paced and fascinating look at the weird world of international politics.
We often hear the phrase “back rooms.” Here we actually see them.
If you are a Bannon fan going in, you’ll probably remain one coming out. The man is witty and self-aware. He’s also extremely sly; you really never can tell when he believes in the snake oil he’s selling.
One thing is for certain: he is dedicated. Bannon’s small team of policy revolutionaries never take a break from their meetings, interviews and photo ops. Framing the film around the America 2018 midterm elections (a few of the candidates were loosely affiliated with The Movement), Klayman shows how Bannon’s 2016 victory is already having unexpected ripple effects. It’s not exactly upbeat when it comes to the issue of anti-Semitism, either in the United States or Europe. (Viktor Orbán makes an appearance in the film.)
I had the good fortune to speak with Alison Klayman in New York, and the precise date – March 15, 2019 – is important. We spoke the day the news broke about the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I watched your film last night prior to going to bed and it all but explicitly states, ‘Prepare for more attacks, especially in unexpected parts of the world.’ Were you surprised getting the news this morning?
I can point to lines in the movie that go hand-in-hand with the ideology of that manifesto. Like the dinner sequence for the far-right European parties, including Mischaël Modrikamen of the Belgian People’s Party — who is in fact Jewish, by the way. There is talk about the “birthrate” of Muslims. He bemoans, “uh, two or three times” the birthrate. For as much effort Bannon makes to not sound overtly racist – I mean, do you sit around talking about birthrates of Europeans? Something that the film builds to, I hope, is the understanding that coded use of language leads to violence.
I used to think Bannon was just looking for a quick buck. Now I think that he’s actually something of a true believer.
Many viewers have seen this film and came to the opposite conclusion you did. Only he knows what’s in his heart, I suppose. I give the best 360 degree picture, but the end, it doesn’t really matter. His actions point to certain ideological beliefs and other motivations.
Who is he spending time with? Is he in a think tank setting? Is he coming up with economic policy? No. Look what he is doing, literally right now: going to rallies about building a wall.
When he goes to Europe he says he wants to help people with jobs, but I think it’s a rebranding exercise. He spends a lot of time with billionaires, speaking at the same kind of events he would decry Hillary Clinton for attending.
There are a lot of private jets in this movie.
Restricting the movement of people but not the movement of money is basically his world view. Economic nationalism for the “little guy” is not reflected in his policies at all. I happen to feel that restricting immigration and building a wall does nothing to help bring better jobs; it comes through regulation, through a minimum wage. Bannon sees nothing wrong with corporations.
Okay, so anyone who talks to you for 15 minutes sees you are to the left. Why did Bannon allow you to make this movie?
Fundamentally? [Shrugs, makes “I dunno” noise.] You gotta ask him.
My producer Marie Therese Guirgis and he knew one another from when Bannon was in the film business, at Wellspring. She was in touch, though expressed her displeasure with him when he joined Trump’s campaign. But she saw the opportunity, because she knew him to be different than the one dimensional evil genius. She worried that perception was probably something he was gaining strength from, and felt it was inaccurate. He’s not breathing fire all day. It’s important to recognize what people are. This film works best as an inoculation.
He’s a human being, and has his moments of insecurity about appearing on television, about his shirts, about his breakfasts. And this gets to probably the most striking part of the movie, when he is talking about the design of Auschwitz and its ‘human’ origins, which is one weird scene –
We’ll get to that in a moment, because the larger issue is this: you can watch this film, close off certain parts of your brain, and – to my own shock and disgust – Steve Bannon kinda comes off as a likable guy.
Yeah. It’s “the banality of evil” or maybe even “the charm of evil”? Within 30 seconds of meeting him I knew this documentary would work. The movie does not endorse him in any way, but it would be detrimental to misrepresent him as someone who is never charming or never funny.
It’s a fair portrait – and he has seen the film and has acknowledged that. It isn’t a YouTube “supercut” of every time he has said something “bad.” What would be the point of that movie?
It’s the type of thing he would make.
Exactly, he boasts that he makes propaganda and thinks it’s a good thing. I don’t do that. However, documentary films do have an author. All the choices in there are my choices. How do I show that he’s charming? It’s how he has good relationships with the press. And this leads to important questions. I do think the press needs to cover him – he is a historical figure at this point – but have you been “taken in” by the charm and the access? I think the film’s tone studies that.
Okay, so the opening scene, first part of the movie, he’s rambling on a story and it touches upon Auschwitz, then this leads to him marveling, almost child-like, about the technical achievement – and it is just weird.
I didn’t tell many people I was working on a Bannon documentary while I was making it. But I did tell a colleague who asked “why you?” I hadn’t really thought about it too much, then I realized it was 100 percent connected to my upbringing and the legacy of the Holocaust in my family. About my grandparents, who were survivors. As a kid, I was somewhat obsessed and had many detailed nightmares about the subject. My mother runs the Holocaust Memorial Day activities at my synagogue. Then I got older and had something of an epiphany: “What if you were a Nazi?”
This seemed almost more terrifying to me, or at least inexplicable, than being the victim. When you realize the bad guys aren’t aliens or robots, they are people. How could this work in the world? And in 2016 and 2017 this felt like an urgent question. So that’s why I ended up doing an intimate access cinema verité movie about Steve Bannon.
So one day, eight months into filming, he ambles into this story. “My shit in Auschwitz rocked,” he says, making this face. He’s talking about bringing one of his film projects around to different spots in Europe. And he knows I’m Jewish and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
He’s going on with the story, I have no idea where it’s headed. Which is why it’s the opening part of the film, because it is unpredictable. Like, people who are expecting this to be a one-sided take-down of Bannon think he’s going to start in with Holocaust denial. Or that the Holocaust is “good.” But that’s not where he’s going. It’s like you said: it’s weird.
He has this glee about the engineering, the strategy, the “cups of coffee at the meetings,” the good people at their desk figuring it out. It gave me a chill because he didn’t know he was literally spelling out the thematic thesis of my film. And I didn’t even lead him there!
He’ll never say, “Behold! I am an anti-Semite!” but I do think he loves to push buttons, and be thought of someone with no boundaries. And if you get “triggered” it’s on you.
It’s complicated. He has a lot of Jewish donors, and there’s people like Modrikamen in Europe; he’s got these covers. And he’s also pro-Israel.
There are a lot of people out there who love everything about Israel except the Jews.
Jews being in their own land with strong borders, but you know it does kind of fit into his larger nationalist worldview.
So when was the last time you spoke to him?
Two a.m. on the eve of the midterms [elections], when I took the microphone off him.
Wow — “that’s a wrap” and that’s it?
We were in close touch the whole time, but it was a professional relationship.
You aren’t in a rush to hear from him? When this movie comes out and gets a good review in The New York Times, will he send you a text that says “Mazel tov”?
Honestly, I don’t care. I don’t end a film and burn every bridge because that’s not how I work but … yeah … I don’t care.
Different from getting a text from Ai Weiwei.
We just had breakfast! So, yeah, different relationship.
Any connections between the two men?
The process of following someone around who is a provocateur is going to seem a little similar. Bannon thinks he is a rebel, but I’ve literally had conversations where he’s said Deng Xiaoping was right to send tanks in on the students. So they couldn’t be more ideological opposites.
Did you feel bad for Bannon on election night?
No. There were, though, times when I felt bad for him on personal things. Physical things. Like, when we’re all exhausted and he hasn’t eaten all day, but he’s a workaholic. But only in those cases. I never felt investment in him achieving his goals.
What’s the impact of making this film on you? You are working in such close quarters with someone you despise? What’s the toll there? I imagine your camera person and sound guy hate him, too?
Heh – I shot it all. And recorded the sound!
It was isolating. I wasn’t there to speak my mind. But that’s my way of dissociating a little; I’m always thinking about the shot, the technical angle. “What’s the light?” But it was a little like having poison poured in your ear all day. What he says is usually inaccurate or hateful or infuriating, and I’d always be hoping the person in front of the camera would confront him.
This happens a little with The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, who confronts him on his continued use of the dogwhistle anti-Semitic term “globalists,” and then, at the end of the film, you challenge him about that, too.
In truth there were many more times I challenged him, but when editing the film I decided to be sparing. It’s more engaging to watch him, not to interact with a voice behind the camera.
But you play games in your head, like with the intentions of that word. The most generous read is that he’s just a troll and an asshole. But I think that’s letting him off the hook. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, that’s where I finally say, “Come on, now.”
It was a little like having poison poured in your ear all day
There’s a moment we had privately. He’s always saying “national economic nationalism doesn’t care about your race, gender, sexual orientation.” You see it in the film. And one time he threw in “gender identity.” And I interjected, “Uh, I don’t think anyone in your movement is fighting for transgender rights,” and he admitted, yeah, okay, that’s a little too far.
He knows. He totally knows.