It’s been almost a year since “American Dharma,” Errol Morris’s Steve Bannon documentary, premiered at the Venice Film Festival. In the interim, another Bannon documentary, Allison Klayman’s “The Brink,” came out to considerably more acclaim; FBI Director Christopher Wray identified white nationalism of the kind winked at by Bannon as America’s major source of domestic terrorism; and Morris, unable to find a distributor, defiantly announced his intention to release the film himself. Cut to today, when Morris found a champion.
The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that “American Dharma,” a project that repelled the film industry for its in-depth profile of a widely-detested political agitator, will be loosed on the world courtesy of a brand new “Filmmaker-Friendly” distribution company called Utopia.
Utopia, formed in February by co-founders David Batesh and Robert Schwartzman (brother of Jason, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola), is taking on the American rights for “American Dharma.” We shudder to think what subset of America is eager to see this film.
“American Dharma,” a free-form “Fog of War”-style conversation between the documentarian and his demagogic subject, was alternately praised and derided for its sidelong approach to questioning its subject. The Hollywood Reporter praised its “detached passion,” while Variety called it a “toothless bromance” in which Bannon capably avoids any low heat attempt to grill his ideology. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film “succeeds neither as journalism nor as portraiture, neither as political critique nor as cultural survey nor as psychological study.”
Failing those criteria and with wider exposure - Utopia plans to have an award-qualifying rollout - “American Dharma” may serve as a soapbox for Bannon.
While most members of the media who sampled the film in its life on the festival circuit might be able to resist the former Breitbart chair’s rhetoric and take a removed interest in it, a distributor pushing the project into theaters can help Bannon’s dog whistles reach more receptive ears.
The announcement of the deal comes just days after an evidently anti-immigrant mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Audiences looking, in the midst of this tragedy, to understand a xenophobic worldview with “American Dharma” don’t need to pay the price of admission. Its talking points are already on the news.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.