Inside Steve Bannon’s ‘weaponized’ political documentaries

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Stephen Bannon looks on as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump makes a campaign visit to the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami, Florida, U.S., September 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSO4CL

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AUDIE CORNISH: Now a different kind of look at the views of one of the president’s closest advisers, Stephen Bannon, how his past work in film provides a window into some of his ideas.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: He is chief strategist to President Trump, close at hand as policy is made and decisions come from the White House, the president even recently appointing him to a seat on the National Security Council, a controversial decision.

Stephen Bannon has quickly gained so much of a reputation as an influential behind-the-scenes string-puller that “Saturday Night Live” portrayed him as the Grim Reaper in a recent skit.

ALEC BALDWIN, Actor: Send in Steve Bannon.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Bannon was well-known previously as chairman of Breitbart News, the right-wing news organization that Bannon himself once called the platform of the alt-right, a fringe conservative group that mixes populism, white nationalism and racism.

But he’s also worked extensively in the film world, as executive producer on two traditional dramas, including “The Indian Runner,” Sean Penn’s directorial debut, and as producer, writer and director of political documentaries often released during election cycles.

Among his film topics, the global financial crisis in 2010’s “Generation Zero,” Sarah Palin, featured in “The Undefeated” in 2011, more recently, 2016’s “Clinton Cash” about alleged corruption in the Clinton Foundation, and also last year “Torchbearer,” about an America turning from God, and the concurrent rise of a violent and radical Islam.

Reporters at The Washington Post have been looking at Stephen Bannon’s work in films and how they may inform his role as the president’s right-hand man.

Ann Hornaday is a film critic for The Post. Matea Gold covers politics.

Welcome, both of you.

MATEA GOLD, The Washington Post: Great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann, give us first an overview of themes, style, approach that emerge when you look at the films.

ANN HORNADAY, Film Critic, The Washington Post: Well, Bannon has really come into his own as mostly a documentary maker.

He has made and produced fiction films in the past, but it’s really his documentaries that get the most attention. And often they have political themes. He has a few sort of canards and villains that he returns to. He doesn’t like the Clintons very much. He doesn’t like any political elite very much.

He rails against the sort of permanent political class. He sees — the films often predict the world in very Manichaean terms, apocalyptic terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Manichaean, black and white, good and evil.

ANN HORNADAY: Black and white, very urgent, very dramatic, I would say very hyperbolic in terms of this fight between good vs. evil.

I described it once as sort of clash of civilizations as cage match. And lately that’s really centered around what he calls the Judeo-Christian West and what he sees as radical Islamic jihadism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Matea Gold, he’s referred to the work as weaponizing film. He said: “We have tried to weaponize film. And we have tried to do it in a certain way to get this film to people who might not necessarily see a political documentary.”

So he’s very up front in this work, as at Breitbart.

MATEA GOLD: Right.

One thing that I think is very important to understand about Bannon is that he’s a canny practitioner of whatever medium that he’s engaged with. He’s spoken admiringly about the techniques of both Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist, and Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker.

And what we have seen over the course of his films is that he explored a lot of the themes, the nationalist and populist themes that really then echoed in Donald Trump’s campaign. He did a documentary about illegal immigration. He went through a whole film that examined the fallout of the financial crisis.

We saw him elevating figures such as Sarah Palin in his films, so really saw him wrestling with some of these same issues that later came to bear in his politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s take a look at a short clip from “The Torchbearer,” which is from last year.

This is featuring Phil Robertson, who is best known for the “Duck Dynasty” series, and the theme of defending Christianity and the rise of violent Islam. Here’s a short clip.

MAN: In the absence of God, the man with the biggest stick determines your worth. Caesar demands his pinch of incense. Violence, decadence, political anarchy, moral decay, welcome to the city of man.

“When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, come and see these events, more to come. And I looked and behold a pale horse, and the name of him who sat on it was death, and Hades followed with him.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Ann, there’s a lot more graphic imagery that we were not able to show. And a lot of it is fast-paced and louder. What do you see?

ANN HORNADAY: He definitely has perfected this rhetoric that’s very — again, very hyperbolic, very stylized.

He’s an emotional storyteller. There are many ways to make a documentary. Some documentaries are explanatory. And they try to make a case in terms of rationality and data and evidence-based learning. But he’s very much a guy who goes for the jugular. It’s very emotional, very emotionalistic.

And, as Matea said, you can really see the echoes of that rhetoric style, that rhetorical style, not only in Trump’s rhetoric, but just even the behavior in the first couple of weeks in terms of the way that they have approached, you know, say the immigration policies that they unfurled really without a whole lot of process involved in terms of making sure you get buy-in from agencies and legislators, because I think, you know, that kind of hews to the same sort of principle of make a big splash and appeal to that emotional core.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matea, you got a look at an outline for a proposed film that never got made, right, but written by Stephen Bannon. And it was to be called “Destroying the Great Satan: The Rise of Islamic Fascism in America.”

Tell us about that.

MATEA GOLD: This was an outline of a film that he worked on in 2007 that explored a lot of aspects of not only the potential of radical Muslims to inflict attacks here in the United States, but the potential for Muslim organizations, community groups to be serving as front groups.

And it also would have explored the sort of appeasement, as he put it, of enablers such as the media, the universities, American Jewish community, that the outline argued were actually facilitating the rise of some of these radical elements.

And this treatment gives us sort of a window into how concerned and preoccupied I think Bannon has been with the potential of fundamental Islam here threatening the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: It uses phases like fundamental clash of civilization, right?

MATEA GOLD: Exactly. There’s a sense — and you have heard him speak about this. He actually gave a talk to a group at the Vatican in 2014 in which he outlined a lot of these worries, the sense that he has that the West and Islam are on the path of a major clash and war, something that’s going to be very destructive.

He warns in very dire, apocalyptic terms, as Ann put it, the potential for radical Islamic jihadis to really gain ground in Europe and also the United States. And that’s something that you see, a thread through all of his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Bannon himself didn’t talk to you for your article, right? But you did talk to other people around him or who have worked with him. What do they say to explain or defend or what he’s after?

MATEA GOLD: People who know him and have worked with him say that he doesn’t harbor a bias, an animus toward Muslims as a whole.

But it seems that really this perception of what Islam is has been overtaken in his mind by the radical elements that he really sees as the vast majority of people who practice Islam. And so I think it’s sort of hard to separate where his personal views are and his political views are, but there is no question, when he talks about Islam, he talks about it as sort of a threatening set of beliefs, as opposed to a religion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann, you brought up Michael Moore earlier, right, as someone that Stephen Bannon admires, in a sense, as a filmmaker? There’s a long tradition of agitprop-type documentary making.

ANN HORNADAY: Absolutely. And they’re both polemicists.

I think Michael Moore also appeals to emotion, in a very different way. For one, thing he uses himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the completely other side.

ANN HORNADAY: Exactly.

And he’s really kind of perfected his on-screen persona, this everyman persona. And that’s a rhetorical strategy, in and of itself. But Bannon has very much stayed behind the scenes. And, sometimes, he directs these films. Sometimes, he doesn’t. He often will write them.

But even just — even when he’s only producing them, they really do share, I think, this kind of common grammar. And, as Matea said, what’s interesting, especially in “Torchbearer,” is that nowhere does he kind of acknowledge that Islam and Judaism and Christianity, they’re all Abrahamic religions.

The God presumably is the same God that they’re all worshiping. But that’s nowhere — he really doesn’t see Islam as a religion. It’s more of an ideology.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matea Gold and Ann Hornaday, thank you both very much.

MATEA GOLD: Thank you.

ANN HORNADAY: Thank you.

AUDIE CORNISH: And, for the record, we have asked the White House for an interview with Mr. Bannon about this and other subjects. They have declined our requests for now.

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