Does Nigel Farage work hard enough? Steve Bannon says not
Nigel Farage doesn’t work hard enough and it’s a British thing, according to Steve Bannon in the new documentary exploring the inner world of Trump’s self-professed kingmaker.
"British guys want to f**k off. No one wants to do any work," complains Bannon in a grumbling aside after one of his acolytes lets him down during his tireless campaign to champion alt-right values across Europe. Then, as an afterthought, we hear, "Nigel’s the same."
Despite this pretty damning indictment on the Brexit Party leader and his countrymen, back in the real world, any time you see Farage reading a message on his phone, more often that not, it’ll be Bannon’s words he’s reading, according to the makers of The Brink, which premiered at Sundance in January and was screened at this weekend’s DocFest in Sheffield.
The fly-on-the-wall film includes a scene with Farage and Bannon, deep in conversation, the former apparently hanging on the latter’s every word. This is the tip of the iceberg, says Guardian journalist Paul Lewis, who helped make the film.
"Bannon told me recently he speaks to Nigel Farage every day," he reports. I asked Farage and he said, “He texts all the time.” I don’t know where the truth is, whether there are emails, or whether they talk, but there’s a lot of communication.
"If you want to understand how effective Nigel Farage is, you need to understand how politicians frame the battle between the ordinary people and corrupt elites, and Bannon does it. He’s almost the archetype of a populist, and he’s been very influential on Farage."
The Brink followed Bannon for a year as he pursued his right-wing agenda across the States and attempted to help his favoured politicians in the European elections, following his exile from the White House in August 2017, and establish himself as the global torchbearer for all things alt-right.
The impressive levels of access – no cup of coffee or can of Redbull goes unnoticed by director Alison Klayman - are down to producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked for Bannon nearly two decades ago and subsequently maintained cordial relations, despite her growing fury at his political move to the right.
"I knew him very well for a few years, I worked for him and he was my direct boss, he was good to me, there was trust there," she remembers.
"We stayed in touch for a few years afterwards. With his life and politics moving to the far right, he then joined the Trump campaign, which came as a surprise to me. I reached out to him as I was disturbed. I sent him aggressive, insulting emails, angry with what he was doing, and he would always respond. There was a relationship that was still there.
"Somebody had to begin to expose him, not only him, but the wider sense of the world he operated in. I had the sense he wasn’t at the fringe as he had been depicted, but right at the centre.
"A documentary can be revealing in a way that no interview or profile was ever going to do, particularly with Bannon, who is very clever, who knows how to push back.
"This documentary has a very privileged place in its ability to go behind the scenes. Anyone who works in documentary knows there is no total access, so we had moments where he asked us to leave the room. But we had a lot of access."
Bannon 'screamed at me'
This same intimacy, coupled with a lack of scrutiny of Bannon’s values and objectives has led some critics to accuse the filmmakers of lazy journalism, letting Bannon off the hook (see this Times review). One viewer in Sheffield remarked that they had inadvertently created a whole new range of meme content for the alt-right to jump on. All this Guirgis rejects.
"Nobody that has seen this film in the states, no writers, no one has joined Team Bannon after watching it, there hasn’t been that response," she responds. "Nobody comes away thinking, 'I love him.' They might come away thinking he’s charming, funny, he’s not a fire dragon 24 hours a day, but he’s a lot of these other things that are not very appealing, to say the least."
Lewis agrees: "With a fly-on-the-wall doc, the risk of inadvertently humanising is higher. But there isn’t too much of Bannon’s theory, this isn’t about his worldview, it’s about his modus operandi.
"It would be a real shame if we were too fearful to tackle the most difficult subjects. It’s not about whether you cover these people, it’s about how you do it."
Their objectivity is perhaps supported by Bannon’s reaction to his own film. According to Guirgis, who kept all editorial control, he first saw it just before Sundance, and he wasn’t very happy.
"He did get very upset," she recounts. "He exploded over the implication that he was taking money from Miles Kwok for his organisation, because that would be a crime in the United States, so he screamed at me to take that out, but we didn’t.
"There are two reasons someone like him would agree to do it, first of all there was vanity, he has an enormous ego and would see it as very prestigious, and I’m sure he thought this could help him.
"Then the film premiered at Sundance, the reviews started coming out and he just completely stopped talking to me, he hasn’t contacted me since then, and it’s clear to me he’s quite angry. Off the record, he’ll tell journalists he’s not bothered, and that’s the smartest thing for him to say. He’s certainly not using it or promoting it, and it’s not seen in the States as being very favourable to him."
'He's not tired of the game'
He’s had worse, however, and both filmmakers are sure that, whether Bannon makes a surprise return to Trump’s side in time to help with the next election, or whether he’ll be left by the roadside waiting for the next political pair of right-wing arms to scoop him up, he’s not tired of the game.
Guirgis reflects: "There is an emptiness to him, a hollowness, he’s a workaholic, he doesn’t really sleep and he’s addicted to winning. He was an investment banker, and he loves the game of it. I personally think there is just a narcissistic drive, he’s tapped into a way to get attention and gain influence, with a very destructive, nationalistic message, but I do think he believes what he says."
Lewis adds: "There are two readings of Bannon, one that he’s this incredibly sophisticated political operator that pulled the strings behind the 2016 campaign and the other is that he is just a massive self-promoter, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.
"If you strip away the politics, which you shouldn’t do because there are real-life consequences, what he means, what’ he’s doing, his drive is testament to what you can achieve by doing the same thing all day, every day."
Another film at DocFest offering a mixture of personal and political was XY Chelsea, charting the last two extraordinary years of Chelsea Manning’s extraordinary life.
British filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins scores an impressive coup in gaining unprecedented access to the whistleblower turned LGBT activist as she takes her first tentative steps into freedom, following President Obama’s commutation of her 35-year sentence for leaking military documents.
What emerges is somebody fragile, brittle, vulnerable but also brave and very principled. After a few forays into public life, the camera follows her disastrous attempt to take on the alt-right by joining them socially, thereby incurring wrath from many on her own side.
Manning’s challenges are by no means over. The ending of the film had to be re-edited recently, following her decision not to testify before Congress about Wikileaks. Travers Hawkins was hoping Manning would be accompanying him to Sheffield for the screening of their film. Instead, she’s back behind bars in the US.
The Brink opens in UK cinemas 12 July 2019