Filmmaker Errol Morris on Wednesday defended his decision to make “American Dharma,” a documentary about Steve Bannon that has drawn further attention to the controversial former chief strategist for Donald Trump and his right-wing views.
At a press conference before the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Morris said that “disturbing things are happening in the U.S. and the world, and it is important for us, certainly the people in America and probably the people throughout the world, to understand better what’s going on. To ignore it [would be a] big mistake, very big mistake.”
Morris criticized what he described as an “ostrich mentality,” saying: “You stick your head in a hole in the ground, and since you can no longer see any danger, people conclude there is none when, in fact, there is terrible danger, and the better we can understand the nature of that danger, the better off we all are.”
Morris said he was a journalist in addition to a filmmaker, and “part of the role of journalists in our society is to investigate things – not just simply to discuss this person’s opinion or that person’s opinion, but to go out and try to find things out. And that’s what I tried to do with ‘American Dharma.'”
He said he had sought to “understand Steve Bannon, understand where he is coming from, the nature of his ideology, and understand what happened in America in 2016, and what is still happening in America now in 2018…and, if you like, to understand it so it doesn’t happen again.”
When asked whether, by dedicating a film to Bannon, he was “normalizing” his alt-right views and allowing Bannon to come to Venice and “reap the benefits of that,” Morris admitted he had “struggled” with the issue, and continued to do so. However, he contended that he had “done something different” with his film. “I don’t think there is anything quite like this movie out there,” he said, adding that he had sought to “explore [the subject] in a deeper, more interesting way.”
In “American Dharma,” the filmmaker uses clips of Bannon’s favorite movies – including “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Searchers” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” – as a framing device. Morris likened the device to a “Rorschach test.”
Remaining silent would have been “bad,” Morris said, but “trying to explore the nature of what [Bannon] calls national populism, what it means, what it means for the world, what it means for my country is absolutely essential.”
Morris said he found Bannon’s ideas “pernicious.” “There is an apocalyptic element that goes well beyond Trump. There’s a truly destructive idea,” he said, adding: “We are all endlessly puzzled in America. What the hell is going on in the U.S.? What are we facing? If you are trying to tell me this is evil, bad, pernicious or destructive, I am not arguing with you. If you are telling me that it is so deeply pernicious and destructive that we shouldn’t talk about it at all, I say that’s nonsense talk. You’re wrong. It is extraordinarily important that we all talk about it and try to come to a deeper understanding of it.”
Bannon was not present at the press conference, and Morris said that his understanding was that Bannon had not been invited to the festival. Although the festival claimed Bannon attended the premiere, slipping in through a side entrance, his press team denied this on Thursday.