The last time Alison Klayman found herself in Portugal, she was facing significantly different circumstances. It was late-December of 2018, and the documentarian was taking a quick break from an unrelenting editing schedule when she learned that her Steve Bannon portrait “The Brink” would premiere in Sundance. Only that made official the filmmaker’s unenviable task to quickly finalize the edit for a film that itself had only wrapped shooting following the midterm elections one month prior.
“When I flew to Lisbon last year, we still hadn’t finalized the title,” she says. “[Working with that two month editing window] robbed us of the luxury of time. Every second had to be used efficiently.”
Ten months later, the director could breath easy. The film made its Sundance deadline, earned strong reviews once there, and continues to be a draw on the festival circuit. Recently, Klayman took the film to Doclisboa, where Variety sat down with her, and to IDFA, where she will also premiere her most recent project, “Flower Punk.” Klayman made the short doc, which follows Japanese artist Azuma Makoto, while on break from Bannon duties. “‘The Brink’ was a project that seemed precarious for a long time, so it was a way to feel in control again,” she explains. “I figured I could go somewhere and think about flowers and think about something totally different.”
One of the major sources of difficulties was Bannon himself. The right-wing agitator elided the fact that he was also participating in Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” so when news hit of that other Bannon portrait, Klayman was forced to put her project on temporary hold, giving her the opportunity to go to Japan to shoot “Flower Punk.”
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Of course, Klayman learned how to center a film around someone with a vast media footprint while working on her debut, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” “You have to be strong and territorial in the field to make sure you’re not muscled out,” she notes. “The BBC would come to shoot an hour-long piece, and I had to fight to make it known that I was already there, and I would stay; my approach was, ‘Well, you’ll have to be in my movie.’”
And so when Bannon followed Morris and his film to Venice, Klayman tagged along. “I said, I guess that’s part of our story,” she explains. “If Bannon’s going to Venice, [so would we.]”
Still, it did create an odd dynamic for the filmmaker. “The idea of having him react to another documentary – let alone one from one of the most legendary filmmakers working today – within the scope of my film was a surreal experience.”
It seems there were a lot of such experiences in the making of the film, which swept the director and her camera into private jets, luxury hotels and closed-door meeting with leaders of the global far-right. “Having great access is a challenge,” says Klayman. “You have to consider what it contributes, what the film says. I said to myself, no one had that access, so what are you going to do with it? You’d better do something of value, you’d better fight to stay in the room as much as possible – because that was not a guarantee every day.”
Klayman continues: “I lived that life with a really intense sense of purpose, which is also how I got through that time. I was never really at risk of getting converted, shall we say. I always felt like the psychological risk that I faced was getting too into this sense of mission, feeling like I’m here on behalf of the American people, I’m here on behalf of history, and I need to capture this!” She laughs. “It’s also like, chill out.”
Klayman is currently at work on a number of projects at different stages of development and, after spending the summer working on a screenplay, is looking to make her scripted debut. Though she doesn’t imagine she’ll speak with Bannon again, she remains close with Ai Weiwei.
“I told him about ‘The Brink’ while we were still shooting,” says Klayman. “And I was so nervous because I didn’t know what he would say. His opinion matters to me. He asked, ‘That’s the guy who wears the jacket, right?’ He knew of him, but was also skeptical. Then he sat back and said, ‘This is very good. You’re making a political movie, this is very good.’”
“He then asked, ‘He’s very smart, yes?’ And I went, “Eh, you’re smarter.’ Then I told him, ‘I’m sorry but now you have something in common with Steve Bannon.’”