Populism Projected in The Brink and Reason

At the Sydney Film Festival this year, two films covering what at first glance appears to be two seemingly disparate events are connected by thematic, revelationary threads. The Brink and Reason  — two documentaries  — compel through their use of the form, not simply capturing their respective zeitgeists, but contextualizing them, and providing a narrative that helps us make sense of important events shaping our world.

“Of the great democracies to fall to populism, India was the first.” That’s how Time Magazine’s May 2019 cover story starts on India’s general elections, where India’s militant nationalist movement (the Hindutva movement) won a resounding victory. Clocking just under four hours, Anand Patwardhan’s Reason traced the growth and spread of this movement in all it’s various facets from the grassroots level to securing a majority in the world’s largest democracy. 

Populism brews across borders — in The Brink, Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry [2012], Take Your Pills [2018]) attained unrestrained access to cover and observe Steve Bannon, as he embarks on an international mission to build up a populist nationalist movement. Starting in the Autumn of 2017, the film follows Bannon for over a year, culminating in the November 2018 US midterm elections.

In The Brink, Klayman gives Steve Bannon a soft platform to boast of his movement’s rise across Europe and the world, attracting attention from various far right European leaders  — and Modi’s India. In India, Reason traces the lineage of the Hindutva movement, which draws its inspiration from right-wing, fascist European groups and their leaders, including Hitler and Mussolini. Patwardhan (Jai Bhim Comrade [2011], In the Name of God [1992]) charts the movement’s historical roots to its contemporary faces without ever allowing its loudest and angriest voices to undermine the stoic resistance and courage of the very people targeted. It is this important perspective that is sadly missing in Klayman’s film. 

The limitations of Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall approach are made clear by Bannon when he proclaims what he learned from spearheading Trump’s successful campaign  —  ”There is no such thing as bad media coverage”. This is emblematic of the increasing failure of profile films, like The Brink, and more broadly, traditional mainstream media, to interrogate and dismantle the ideas propagated by such figures. Klayman, despite her best intentions to hold Bannon accountable, ends up providing him with exactly what he craves  —  a platform and an audience. Klayman’s noble aim to expose Bannon’s bigotry through his own words and ideas proves ultimately counter-productive. In the film, Bannon repeatedly wears the ‘deplorables’ tag given to his supporters by Hillary Clinton as a badge of honour. He’s not hurt by criticisms, or backlash  — but is instead empowered by them. Over the course of ninety minutes, Bannon contradicts himself and makes up terms like ‘economic nationalism’, but these missteps are glazed over by his continuous, overpowering rhetoric. As much as it may seem so on the surface, Bannon’s not falling over his laces. Instead, he’s carefully harnessing the documentary platform to embolden and legitimise the racist, anti-semitic, islamophobic voices across the world. 

The first chapter of Reason begins with archival footage of social activist Narendra Dabholkar addressing a gathering. “Everything has a reason behind it. Unlike religion, which believes in a final truth, science is on a hunt for endless truths and reasons.” Dabholkar was a strong advocator of the Dalits (‘the Untouchables’), the lowest of India’s caste system. We soon learn that he was assassinated on August 20, 2013. Patwardhan then introduces us to Govind Pansare, a left wing politician, before informing us that he too was assassinated two years later. This establishes very early the lives that are at stake. Unlike The Brink, before Patwardhan starts to delve into the Hindutva movement, he has already familiarized the audience with its victims, offering an alternate perspective on what the movement intends to achieve underneath the garb of their patriotism and flag bearing. 

In contrast, The Brink sees Bannon praise the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s plan, describing its purpose as to “preserve Hungary’s security and its Christian culture,” and to aim for an “old-school Christian democracy, rooted in the European tradition”. At the same time, Bannon laments the Arab shops and businesses in London. The absence of lives, faces, and voices at the other end of Bannon’s firing line  —  the Muslims, the immigrants, the families separated at borders — prevents the film from unwrapping the abhorrent bigotry and racism beneath the veneer of seemingly harmless “old school Christian democracy”. 

Klayman’s attempt to unmask Bannon easily turns in Bannon’s favour, as he strategically emphasises his persona as a man on a mission. The only strong challenge to Bannon’s ideology in the film comes from Guardian journalist Paul Lewis, who conducts an interview with Bannon and a representative from the hard-right Brothers of Italy party. As Klayman films the interview, we see Lewis chide the interpreter for attempting to sugar coat what the Italian far right politician was actually saying. Unfortunately that’s the closest we get to a rebuttal in the film. 

The world continues to form an overload of platforms and increased space for the powerful to shape and control the narrative, portray themselves as the ‘outsiders’ and ‘victims’ — note, for example, how Trump repeatedly complains about how he is treated. And so the documentary form remains an incredibly powerful medium to interrogate the powerful, unmask them, and frame the narrative so that the brave, relentless, and indomitable voices fighting them are not undermined. Reason speaks truth to power. The Brink is a lost opportunity.

The Brink and Reason played at the Sydney Film Festival 2019.

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Faraaz H Rahman is an emerging filmmaker and freelance writer based in Sydney. He has directed two short films which are currently travelling the world of festivals. When he takes a break from his quest to read every novel ever written and watch every film ever made, he enjoys cricket and cooking. He can be found on @fistfuld ranting about cricket, movies and politics. 

Faraaz H Rahman

Faraaz H Rahman is an emerging filmmaker and freelance writer based in Sydney. He has directed two short films which are currently travelling the world of festivals. When he takes a break from his quest to read every novel ever written and watch every film ever made, he enjoys cricket and cooking. He can be found on @fistfuld ranting about cricket, movies and politics.