Errol Morris Defends Making Doc 'American Dharma' to Understand Steve Bannon

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
'American Dharma'

The two dissect everything from how Bannon was influenced by Morris' film 'The Fog of War,' his role in co-founding Breitbart, how he helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election, his theories behind nationalist populism and more, all around the structure of discussing his favorite works from directors including David Lean, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and John Ford.

Renowned documentarian Errol Morris jokingly referred to his own dharma, his fate or duty, as facing a “hostile press” in Venice at a conference for his new documentary American Dharma. While journalists at the official press conference questioned the Venice regular for choosing to make a film about former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Morris argued that he was doing his job as a journalist and filmmaker, and to do nothing, especially at this point in history, is dangerous.

While Bannon is currently in Venice, he is not part of the official film delegation and has not made any public appearances around the film's launch. Bannon did not attend the official film premiere through the use of a side entrance, as some media have reported, but he told THR that he has been holed up in his hotel in Venice in meetings all day. The film's PR team confirmed Bannon's report. 

This film is shot through a framework of Bannon’s favorite films, most notably Henry King’s World War II classic Twelve O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck. Morris re-created a set from the film on which he spoke with Bannon over a series of days. The two dissect everything from how Bannon was influenced by Morris' film The Fog of War to make documentaries, his role in co-founding Breitbart, how he helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election, his theories behind nationalist populism and more, all around the structure of discussing his favorite works from directors including David Lean, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and John Ford.

“Call it whatever you like, perverse, deranged, surreal, but that’s what I did,” said Morris.

The documentarian defended the film as a way to understand “a whole number of disturbing things happening in the world,” he said. “To ignore it? Big mistake, very big mistake.

“I sometimes describe it as the ostrich mentality,” he said. “You stick your head in a hole in the ground and since you can no longer see the danger you conclude there is none. But in fact there is terrible danger, and the better we can understand the nature of that danger, the better off we all are.”

After an online backlash caused New Yorker editor David Remnick to drop Bannon from the magazine's October festival, with Remnick saying he intended to hold a “combative conversation” with the former White House adviser, Bannon called the journalist “gutless.”

Although Morris wouldn’t comment specifically on the New Yorker festival’s decision, he said tongue in cheek: “I thank all of you at Venice for showing the movie.”

When pressed why he didn’t push back on various points made by Bannon in the film, Morris replied, “We all have this idea of what an interview is supposed to be. For many people it’s supposed to be an adversarial enterprise. You’re supposed to be a kind of butterfly expert pinning a butterfly to a board. I see it differently. I see it as an investigation, an exploration of trying to understand various things.”

He said he could have spent hours alone on any of the various topics, using an example of big versus small government, but said, “I believe the point is made that destroying all kinds of government regulations is not populism, but a program in service of the rich.”

When asked again about whether he was merely giving Bannon a platform, Morris replied, “Did I struggle with this? The answer is yes. Am I still struggling with this? The answer would still be yes.”

“But my answer is not to simply remain silent and not make the movie,” he continued. “Bannon has this extraordinary ability, maybe call it 'clickbait' or whatever. Trump also has that ability, of getting attention from the media," he said. "But it’s certainly not an argument against doing something different and trying to explore something deeper or in a more interesting way, and I feel that’s what I’ve done. I think remaining silent isn’t good. I’ll go even further. I’ll say it’s bad. Just simply affording him an opportunity for more public exposure, not good. Trying to explore the nature of what he calls national populism and what is means for the world, what it means for my country, I think is absolutely essential.”  

Morris said that Bannon remarkably is the only character he has interviewed that enjoyed being compared to Satan. When Morris quotes Milton, “Better to reign in hell,” Bannon finishes the quote for him, “than serve in Heaven,” saying he used the quote often.

The journalist behind the initial question about giving Bannon a platform, unsatisfied, pushed again, asking what the documentary reveals is new about Bannon, saying that he himself learned nothing new.

Morris later became animated, saying, “It’s almost like all of the emotions and details and subtleties of the world have been shaved away and replaced with some kind of crude principal that justifies everything.

“You should be scared and you should also be scared because you learned nothing because you don’t want to learn anything,” he said raising his voice. “All people today want to see is journalists sitting in front of a table discussing what they think about X, Y and Z. They don’t want to see people going out and finding things out. Easy to say, 'You did nothing.' But even if I did nothing, I tried.”

Morris reiterated his point, “If you’re trying to tell me that this is evil or bad or pernicious or destructive, I’m not arguing with you. If you’re telling me that this is so deeply bad or pernicious we shouldn’t talk about it at all, I say that’s nonsense talk. You’re wrong.

“I think it’s extraordinarily important that we all talk about it and try to come to a deeper understanding of it,” he said.

Pointing out that his film is premiering in Italy, Morris added, “And what frightens me even more is that he’s been successful in Europe. What would he like to do? Probably destroy the European Union, probably destroy the European currency, probably to turn Europe back into a world of warring nation states, destroy the United Nations. It’s insane,” said Morris, saying we have no awareness of history in the United States.

And he said that he found it fascinating that he agreed with Bannon on many topics. 

“If he tells me there’s a terrible problem with the middle class in America, I would agree. I grew up in the 1950s,” he said. “My father died when I was 2 years old. My mother brought my brother and myself up on a school teacher's salary. Could she have done what she did then, now? I think not. I think the middle class has fallen behind.

“The disparity between the haves and have-nots in America has increased enormously. The policies of the Trump administration are not populist policies at all but policies designed to give money to the rich at the expense of the poor," said Morris. "How do you account for their success? My hope is there’s an end to this.

“But even if there’s an end to this, that problem still remains, through successive administrations, and will remain a problem after this administration,” continued the filmmaker. “What do you do about income and inequality, the unfair distribution of wealth? Could Bannon possibly be right that we are headed for a revolution unless something is done to fix the endemic problems in our society? He might be.

“This is one thing we agree upon,” said Morris. The solutions? No, no, no, no, no. No agreement. The idea that a populist program is beating up on other people, other races is disgusting, abhorrent to me.”