Filmmaker Alison Klayman On Her Year With Steve Bannon
Alison Klayman is an accomplished and decorated documentarian. Her filmography includes the award-winning “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012), which followed the titular Chinese activist and artist, and “Take Your Pills” (2018), an expose on Adderall addiction. But none of her ambitious and intimate films could prepare her for her latest subject.
In “The Brink,” which opens in select cities March 29, Klayman confronts the mystique of Stephen K. Bannon, the infamous alt-Right figurehead, erstwhile campaign chair and strategist for Donald Trump and influential former executive chair of Breitbart. Klayman met Bannon at a low moment – just after his ouster from Trump’s White House in August of 2017 – and followed him through his meetings with Republican contenders for the 2018 midterm elections and the beginnings of his foundation, “The Movement,” which hopes to unite Europe’s far-right contingents. It’s brave filmmaking that tears back the curtain on a dealmaker whose methods are too often obscured by sensationalist press and tell-all books.
The Forward spoke with Klayman over the phone about how the film came together, how her Jewish identity informed her decision to pursue the project and her take on that other Bannon documentary still looking for a distributor.
PJ GRISAR: I speak to a lot of documentarians and they tell me access can make or break the film. You had an incredible amount of access to Bannon. How did this come together as a project and how did you go about establishing trust?
ALISON KLAYMAN: My producer, Marie Therese Guirgis, reached out to me with the idea for the project. She worked for a company called Wellspring [Media] in the early 2000s and Steve Bannon was her boss there in his entertainment investment days. They hadn’t been in touch for many years and when he emerged as a key figure in the Trump campaign she got back in touch, frankly to discuss her extreme displeasure with him. She felt like she would be able to convince him to do a documentary. It was always conceived of as a vérité-style film where we’d follow him rather than an interview-based film because [Guirgis] thought the coverage of him was not on the mark. She felt that some of the extreme ways that he was portrayed as an evil mastermind was giving him potentially way more power. He said “no” a few times before he said “yes.” She thought of me to be the filmmaker because it is in my wheelhouse to do a film with intimate access and I can shoot it and navigate how to have a professional relationship with the subject. Though I had never done a project where I was filming someone whose worldview and activities I was so opposed to.
How do you manage that feeling? How can you be dispassionate – or do you feel like you don’t need to be necessarily?
I think you do need to be dispassionate in the moment of filming. A lot of audience members say they can feel me as a character. But I certainly feel that a film like this has an author and there’s a perspective and a choice not just in the edit but everyday: Where I put the camera, what I was looking at at any given moment. But it wasn’t the kind of film where it’s about me sparring with him, although I do get in my moments. I was not there undercover or with a fake persona, but I would say my job was not to speak up in this case.
But as you mentioned there are some moments where we hear you. And because they are so few and far between those are striking. For instance, after the Tree of Life shooting you press Bannon on his use of the term “Globalist” and he deflects and says it’s not anti-Semitic. And in another instance Paul Lewis from The Guardian does the same thing. Do you buy that he doesn’t think it has those connotations and that he’s not really dog whistling?
I don’t know exactly what’s in his heart. Only he knows that. But dog whistle anti-Semitism was a very big topic in our discussions. It came up organically through things that I witnessed like what Paul Lewis challenged him on and sadly after the Tree of Life shooting happened and all the Soros talk. But it is especially centered because I am the filmmaker. It’s an area that I felt ownership of in terms of challenging him and I think he was highly aware of that. From our first introduction I was introduced as “Alison, a progressive Jewish filmmaker, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors” and he knew that. I didn’t try to tell him too much about my life, but he did know that I went to Jewish day school and he was very interested that I had read the Torah in Hebrew and I studied Talmud. We’d argue a lot, but I think it’s a weak argument to say, “I don’t believe it’s a dog whistle.” The thing that frustrated me is I think he’s smart enough to know it was a dodge and he’s a grownup and has to take responsibility for the words that he uses. It’s always a choice. It would often get to the point where he would say, “Well what words do you want me to use?” It was very disingenuous, I thought.
He would also ask Mischaël Modrikamen, the co-founder of The Movement [the Brussels-based far-right group, co-founded by Bannon], who is a Jewish lawyer in Belgium with very extreme anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views (and a leader of a very negligible political party). I would see Bannon have conversations with him where he’d say “is Globalist anti-Semitic?” and he’d also cite Stephen Miller and I was like, “Stephen Miller is not the authority on what Jews think about anything, so thank you for that.” But I think something that unfortunately probably bolsters his view that he can’t be engaging in anti-Semitic dog whistling is that he’s surrounded by a lot of Jews and he has a lot of Jewish financial support. And a lot of that cloak is also woven with pro-Israel support. His idea of Nationalism is a strong cultural identity-based nation and Israel very much fits into that worldview. I would often try to explain to him why that’s not a cover for everything you do. But he really likes to argue and those are the kinds of things he would always go back to.
It’s interesting that we have two documentaries on Bannon both by Jewish filmmakers, the other being Errol Morris. It’s hard to see his film so I’ve yet to. It does sound like they’re two different treatments of the same guy.
Yeah, very different treatments. His was interview-based and filmed in a studio setting.
The timing of your schedule was kind of perfect. You can’t plan for these things but over the course of your filming the struts of a narrative – a series of huge events and a lot of setbacks – all came through.
Yeah. After Tree of Life it was tough to keep my poker face on. And it was also very difficult during Bannon’s unequivocal endorsement of Roy Moore. But then he had that meeting in Europe with Nigel Farage where they talk about world domination and uniting the far-right parties of the world. That felt unbelievable to be filming. At the end of that dinner in London I had drank some of their leftover wine and called my parents and my husband and said “Either I just filmed the beginning of something very frightening and of great historical import or I just filmed a bunch of people at a fancy dinner having a sort of xenophobic conversation.” And that’s how it is with vérité. It was very early in the project. You don’t always know what the significance of things is going to be so you try and be there for everything.
Were you surprised in any way by the clout of his movement or his dealings in politics here? Or even him personally?
There was so much I didn’t know about him at the beginning. I was definitely forming my opinion as I went. He is an incredibly hard worker. At the same time his whole operation is very disorganized, which was surprising because it was particularly unprofessional for someone operating at his level in terms of who he was dealing with.
The nature of so much of what he did was ad hoc. He knew someone who knew someone and at the same time he was getting in the room with world leaders like [Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor] Orbán and [Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo] Salvini and in touch with Boris Johnson, in touch with Lindsey Graham. But you don’t want to make that overblown and feed this idea of him as very powerful. But in some sort of haphazard way he was meeting with all these people. Whether that says something about him or those people is also something to consider.
Another moment in the film where you press him is when he describes his film “Trump @ War” as propaganda. You note the hypocrisy of his railing against identity politics while essentially playing to another kind of “identity politics” through the doctrine of Economic Nationalism and appeals to the far-right. When you make that point to him it seemed to give him pause.
100 percent. That was one of the things that made me the most frustrated. Any time he could go back to Hillary Clinton – which was a winning argument for him – and the left and identity politics, he would. That was one million percent his currency and the thing is as time goes on he’s getting more and more sophisticated at distancing that from its most basic expression in terms of actual White Supremacy and White Nationalism and a vision of a white, Christian nation. It gets more sophisticated but he is absolutely playing in that sandbox. He’s using a lot of the words that are out there. It doesn’t hurt him and in fact I think it makes him more defiant. It shows exactly where his allegiance is.
I like the footage of the protestors throughout the film. They are kind of like this Greek chorus and they’re the reminder along the way that there’s a world outside of his side. You suddenly realize there is this whole world of opposition, but also a different worldview and a different vision of the future. (Another part of that is] the congresswomen’s victory speeches that we included at the end of the film.)
One of those main protests we filmed was one that If Not Now and JVP and other groups co-organized when he spoke at the ZOA [Zionists Organization of America] in November of 2017. I went and was like “Wow, I’ve just begun filming Bannon and there’s going to be signs with my character’s name on them.” But also it was very important for me to be there personally. I was already on their email list. The fact that there were Jews on the outside protesting him and Jews on the inside that were honoring him – that lit a fire for me. I think for our Jewish community, when we watch this film, I hope people talk about that. Accusations of anti-Semitism are in there but he also can credibly say “I have many Jewish supporters and donors.”
At the beginning of the film, you have Bannon describing being at Auschwitz to film his documentary “Torchbearer” and marveling at the meticulous design of Birkenau. How did you come to the decision to start there?
It feels like there’s a line you can draw through my identity growing up with my Holocaust awareness and my family’s legacy. It so shaped my worldview. It’s probably why I studied history and why I like documentary. When the project came up my mind went to: It’s the 1930s and you get an opportunity to film with a historical figure on the wrong side. Do you do it? And my immediate response is “Yes!” If you believe in the power of journalism, documentary, art documenting for history the answer would be “Yes,” so I didn’t know why it would be any different now. All of that was wrapped into my agreeing to do the project. I don’t know if you saw but after the credits is a dedication to my grandparents.
This is all background to say that one day, Bannon starts talking to me about how “his shit in Auschwitz rocked.” My jaw was agape and I was trying to do my usual thing of being quiet to encourage him to talk more. But he brings up that story of this movie that he shot there apropos of nothing I asked him and then he takes it even further to tell the story that became the opening. I was completely floored. And he was reacting to my wide open eyes and mouth ajar – and I know because his face kind of mirrors mine when I give him a look. I’m sure he thought “Oh, I’m going to entertain her, she’s Jewish she has her own connection to this.” And he probably enjoyed that but for me, I thought “he doesn’t understand he’s literally telling me the thesis, if not the motivation, for my making this film.” It is about this question of how do we get to these places of hatred as a society, hatred as a social policy, as a political weapon, as something enshrined in the laws and the banality of evil.
Before then I didn’t know how the movie was going to start. And when our editors came onboard I was nervous to show it to them because I was hoping they would see [what I saw] – that this story should be the cold open. [The footage] is also so layered because it shows his charisma in storytelling that some people might think “Oh this is going to go into some kind of Holocaust denial,” which is not where it goes at all. But what he chooses to emphasize – as you mentioned the glee with which he tells this story about the efficiency of the operation is very bizarre and therefore very uniquely him. The film is very fair in its treatment of him and I think it’s important to start out with a reminder to the audience, which I think you get throughout the film, that there is an author here. Even though it’s all his words and nothing is distorted.
Has he seen the film?
He saw the film just before it premiered at Sundance. My producer showed it to him and I think he didn’t know what to think. It was a lot to see a document of your life, but I don’t think he’s been very pleased since the reviews have been coming out. And we’re not really in communication. The portrayal was what it was, but I think it’s very nuanced. It’s not what he is used to and not what he expected. It’s hard to know what will happen when someone has hundreds of hours of film of you.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.