Never in recent memory has there been such a volatile time in politics than today and one man has added his own fuel to the fire—Steve Bannon. Director Alison Klayman has opened the doors into this man’s life with her new film “The Brink” (2019), giving viewers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes action and the inner workings of politics like never seen before.
Klayman, responsible for documentary works of art such as “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012) and “The 100 Years Show” (2015), recently spoke with me about her journey, both literally and figuratively, as she captured Bannon from all angles shedding light onto a subject previously existing in the shadows.
The concept of this film came from Marie Therese Guirgis with whom Klayman had collaborated for “The 100 Years Show.” Guirgis had worked closely with Bannon at Wellspring Media for three years and Klayman described that they had a good working relationship. She reported that the two had fallen out of touch “…until he burst on the scene of the Trump campaign…and she got back in touch with him, frankly to send him angry letters saying that she was really disappointed in him….” These letters continued throughout Trump’s election and Bannon’s time in the White House, but the tipping point came after the Muslim Travel Ban and Guirgis “let him have it.” She shared, “I witnessed the way she talks to him. She’s really not holding back.” But soon after, Guirgis realized that perhaps this candid relationship could be brought to a greater use, which was the spark for “The Brink.”
Approached by Guirgis to participate in this vérité style of film, Bannon initially declined, but eventually welcomed the proposal. Klayman, before accepting the director’s position, wanted to meet Bannon. Maria introduced the two, and before Bannon agreed, Guirgis “was in full form,” Klayman chuckled, worried that he wouldn’t agree under these circumstances. And this was just the beginning of peering through the Lookingglass, a term Klayman said that was used as a first working title of the film.
Klayman and Bannon traveled together around the country and the world for thirteen months as she captured more than one hundred hours of footage, which were then distilled into the film we see today. While we see glimpses of Klayman’s personal viewpoint, the filmmaker expressed that she took great care in her editing process to create fairness in the film. “I felt like the strength of the movie would come from a fair treatment of the subject and the material. That didn’t mean that I came in as a neutral member of society. I think that would be a lie.” She continued, “This film has a filmmaker. Here are the clues to how the filmmaker sees this story.” She added, “Documentary film is not just the facts ma’am kind of a thing, but I thought it needed to be fair in the sense that I was there to make a story out of what I actually found, not what I wanted to find or what I expected to find.” Klayman punctuated the fact that she was profoundly careful in her editing, saying, “If I found a person who was charming people and had charisma, I can’t cut that out. I can’t take a scene and edit it manipulatively; that will discredit the whole piece.”
Klayman had remarkable access to meetings, dinners, and casual moments with politicians and far right leaders from around the world. While she sometimes was limited in what she filmed, stating that she was occasionally “invited to leave,” indicating the private conversations were off-limits for public knowledge, she was particularly proud of being able to film the meeting with global extremist leaders in London. She gave Bannon credit in calling him a “great advocate” as he would encourage others to be a part of the film.
In addition to the leaders, Klayman captured Bannon’s interviews with renowned and respected journalists, many who had heated conversations with Trump’s right-hand man. In her downtime, oftentimes waiting with the journalists for their time with Bannon, she explained her position to them as an independent filmmaker. Met with initial skepticism, which Klayman understood, most welcomed her filming and were excited to see the final product as journalists “don’t get the time or the space to write that kind of piece.”
The intimate and candid moments Klayman captured were not only eye-opening, but mind-boggling. From conversations with John Thornton, the former president of Goldman Sachs to private meetings with Lena Epstein and John James, Congressional and Senate candidates in Michigan in 2018, Klayman was proud of the fact that these particular scenes “…raised a lot of questions I don’t have answers to.” However, she feels confident that the hypocrisy, false information, and “…the fact that a lot of Bannon’s messaging when it comes to helping people, the little guy, being revolutionary, with a different view of economics, that, to me, if anything, that shows that that’s false.” She deduced that he is not a threat to the super rich and that both he and Trump want the same thing. “I think that was really important to show.”
What is the ultimate goal of the film? Klayman hopes that the role of the media in upcoming elections is discussed; “…not whether to cover these people, but how.” She added, “As we have more elections coming up in the EU in 2020, it’s crucial to have a more thoughtful discussion…questions about who is funding these far right movements and how do we keep them honest about what they’re really fighting for and what they’re really doing. To me, those are the things that transcend and are still vitally important. And frankly, the cast of characters you see in the film are all also not going away…so who knows what’s going to come next.”
Bannon, as a courtesy, was shown the finished film prior to its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. His response was guarded, which Klayman interpreted as his way of waiting to see what the press thought of the film. “I think that’s what matters most to him.”
Education and knowledge are power, and this powerful documentary “The Brink,” seen as a fly on the wall, allows you to ask and sometimes answer your own questions that will no doubt be relevant in the next news cycle, global election, and the 2020 campaign.