Years ago I wanted to start an ostrich anti-defamation league because I thought ostriches were being unfairly criticized for a perfectly reasonable strategy—sticking their heads in a hole in the ground in order to avoid danger. Now I think there’s a lot to be said for the opposite point of view. That facing danger, square on, is usually the best course of action. Our country was plunged into chaos, or worse, in 2016. And Stephen K. Bannon was at the center of it. I feel that it is important to talk to him, to investigate him, and to understand his point of view.
Steve Bannon asked me why I wanted to make American Dharma. I told him I didn’t understand him or why he was doing what he was doing. But I thought if making a film could help me, and others, understand any of this, then it would be a good thing.
Does shedding light on Bannon give him more attention? Maybe. But I worry more about indifference, silence, avoidance, a lack of thoughtful analysis. The movie both contextualizes his remarks and pushes back against many of them. But my task as a filmmaker is neither to sanitize Bannon nor to attack him, but to try and capture his ideas and represent what he’s trying to achieve—even if that scares me.
One question that the film raises: is Steve Bannon a true believer or an opportunist? I think it’s usually a mixture of both. Take it from me, a former door-to-door salesman, the simple answer is that if you’re selling something it’s much better to believe in it. It’s much easier to sell what you believe. Bannon flirts with classical ideas of fate, of destiny—all, I suppose, wrapped up in his theory of dharma. But what is dharma? Fate? Destiny? Duty? Obligation? At times dharma seems like it could be anything or everything.
I recently published a book (The Ashtray) that is really about truth, what truth means, and also the denial of truth. We live in a time when people are trying to make up reality on the spur of the moment, as if reality doesn’t exist independent of us. As if reality is simply up for grabs. I passionately believe that there is a real world out there and that there is such a thing as truth. And one of the most repellant things ongoing is the denial of that fact. It is one of the most frightening things about our current world that people feel they can claim anything, believe anything and that it can never be challenged. That’s beyond moral equivalence. It’s a kind of total equivalence, where World of Warcraft is more real than the world itself.
Bannon invokes a much simpler, black-and-white, fantasy world of Hollywood from the 1950s and early 1960s—and an America that tried very hard to reflect those images. The worlds of John Ford, of David Lean, of Henry King, of Orson Welles and of Stanley Kubrick may be incredibly powerful, but they’re movie worlds, not reality. One of the true ironies for me is that Bannon’s interpretation of every single quoted movie in this film is at variance with mine, as if we’re actually looking at two different movies. And maybe we are. But we still inhabit the same world with the same problems and the need for solutions. – Errol Morris
The Harvard Film Archive is happy to welcome back documentary legend Errol Morris with a screening of his provocative new film, American Dharma, followed by a conversation with Ann Marie Lipinski, Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.