In the opening sequence of Alison Klayman’s documentary, “The Brink,” former White House senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon is in the midst of a rambling story when his demeanor suddenly changes, and he begins to recall visiting Auschwitz.
Klayman, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, listened intently as Bannon ruminated that while Auschwitz was converted to a concentration camp, the Birkenau section had been built for its gruesome purpose. He goes on to imagine the designers, “humans that are not devils” but “just humans.”
“He was giving me my thesis,” Klayman remarks in an interview in early March in New York City.
Bannon was a strategist for the Trump campaign and a close advisor to the president for the first seven months of his term. For “The Brink,” Klayman trailed him for a year, beginning in 2017; it was before Bannon and President Trump parted ways, and after Bannon began plans to unite American and European alt right groups under a common banner.
A close friend asked Klayman why she wrote and directed “The Brink.” She admits to having to think about her answer. Why her? She recalled the opening sequence with Bannon: “As he started to edge closer, thematically, to the ‘banality of evil’ — well, that’s what this movie is about for me.”
“The Brink” is dedicated to her maternal grandparents, Polish survivors; their names in the end titles are accompanied by the letters z”l, shorthand for the Hebrew sentiment: “May the memory be a blessing.”
Klayman has written and directed two feature documentaries about artists, “The 100 Years Show” (2015), a profile of Carmen Herrera, and “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012). Her 2018 Netflix documentary, “Take Your Pills,” is about Adderall, the amphetamine of choice for college students.
All are meticulously researched, multi-layered and journalistic in approach. In “The Brink,” Klayman follows Bannon to fundraising events, the Conservative Political Action Conference, meetings with far-right European politicians, and to a dinner with European leaders of white supremacy groups. Producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked with Bannon at the film distribution company Wellspring Media, asked Klayman to direct after Bannon agreed to reasonably unfettered access.
Klayman explains that she and Guirgis never considered any style except fly-on-the-wall. “It is a flawed premise to think that sitting down in an interview with Bannon is going to be revealing,” the 34-year-old filmmaker says. “You see how dishonest he is. He doesn’t enter a conversation in good faith.”
A case in point is a scene shot in Venice, in which Paul Lewis from the Guardian conducts an interview with Bannon and a representative from the hard-right Brothers of Italy party. In the course of Lewis’ contentious interview, his Italian interpreter interjects, inappropriately, to defend Brothers of Italy.
Lewis tries to restore order, and Bannon criticizes him for shutting down the interpreter. “My hope is that the film can be a deconstruction of him,” Klayman says, “and while sometimes it is gratifying to see Bannon challenged, that is a fleeting victory. I agree that what you are watching in that scene is the way he does things — some call it ‘gaslighting,’ but it’s more than that.”
After filming a chilling dinner sequence later in the documentary, Klayman took a half-bottle of wine to her room and called her husband. “I told him I think I just filmed the Wannsee Conference,” she says, referring to the 1942 Nazi “Final Solution” meeting held in Berlin. The scene is reminiscent of “The Wannsee Conference,” Heinz Schirk’s 1984 dramatization of the event. Asked if the resemblance was intentional, Klayman, who describes her Jewish ethnicity as “foundational” to her personality and work, replies that she has visited the villa where the conference took place and thinks she saw the movie in college.
Klayman describes Bannon as respectful of her, although she confesses to being impervious to what others describe as his “charm.” Though she was initially amused by Bannon’s self-deprecating remarks, her feelings changed in the course of filming. A half-dozen times, male supporters asked Bannon to pose for pictures with them. In each instance, he placed a woman in the middle and said: “A rose between two thorns.” “I didn’t pick up on that because it was funny,” Klayman says, “but because of his casual misogyny.”
To add to Klayman’s feelings of unease, she received some surprising news a few months into production in April 2018 when Guirgis met with Bannon to discuss his travel schedule: He disclosed, in passing, his interview with Errol Morris for the filmmaker’s own documentary on Bannon, “American Dharma.” Luckily, Klayman says, executive producers at Magnolia, “The Brink’s” distributor, were committed to the project.
“Errol Morris’ film was made with many times our budget,” she observes, “and with very powerful producers, as well by a very well-respected filmmaker.”
AMERICAN DHARMA. Trailer, one-sheet–– coming up. The movie that everyone was afraid to show.— errolmorris (@errolmorris) February 27, 2019
Klayman takes note of Morris’ series of Twitter posts in February in which he wrote that he would self-distribute the film, claiming distributors were afraid to release it.
“I felt when he was talking about his [film] not having distribution, I was being erased,” Klayman says. “This idea that his film isn’t getting distribution because in a film about Bannon no one can handle the truth — well, I wish he would directly engage, rather than never acknowledging [on Twitter] that there is another movie.”
The writer-director observes that the two documentaries take very different approaches. “Morris interviews,” Klayman says, “but my film is longitudinal, a longer study of Bannon.”
Morris did not respond to The Times’ request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.