My maternal grandmother, who emigrated from Poland early enough to have avoided being in Eastern Europe when Adolf Hitler came to power, lived with us in my birth town of Brooklyn. She had a method for dealing with the hated and feared Nazi dictator – shah shtill, she would say in Yiddish, be quiet! In my household, one did not mention the loathsome name. World historical problem solved

I was never convinced. Little did I realize, however, that when I attained the age of my grandmother when she and I shared a bedroom, I would once again encounter those whose response to phenomena perceived as threatening was to command silence. The notion that a frightening phenomenon, if not spoken about, would disappear seems to be deeply embedded in the human psyche, or at least some psyches. Current exhibit number one: The unwillingness, thus far, of distributors to buy documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ controversial new film “American Dharma” about Donald Trump’s one-time campaign strategist and later policy adviser Steven K. Bannon

I’ve seen the movie twice in private showings, most recently at the Harvard Film Archive. Morris’ meditation seeks to understand, and hence explain, this former (and, we have reason to believe, still current) advisor and perhaps political and philosophical inspiration to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. A discussion or review of Morris’ only documentary to face such distribution difficulties cannot avoid dealing with the reasons for this cold shoulder turned against such a hot property

(Disclosure: I am a long-time personal friend of Errol Morris and of his wife, Julia Sheehan, who shares with him a screen credit for her advice and assistance. Morris in 2016 made a documentary film about my wife’s photographic work, entitled “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography”.)

The film is of enormous importance in any effort to even begin to understand the Trump phenomenon that burst upon the nation so suddenly. Trump’s defeat of an exceptionally large field of politically experienced Republican contenders seemed improbable. But his triumph over Hillary Clinton in the general election, an outcome almost universally dismissed until the moment the electoral vote was counted, left a good part of the American electorate as well as the political class baffled, indeed shell-shocked

Many who were shocked by Trump’s victory seemed unable to reconcile themselves to the reality of seeing this political enigma engage in his approach to governing. America’s major (and many minor) media outfits took to incorporating anti-Trumpism into their reporting, thus calling into question their objectivity and giving the President the ability — with more than a grain of truth — of dismissing them as “fake news.” None of the tomes about Trump’s rise, nor all of news reports and opinion columns combined, appeared to offer a satisfactory explanation of the Bannon phenomenon that was so integral to Trumpism’s rise and conquest. This is where Errol Morris stepped in — or at least, tried to

At a post-screening Q&A at the Harvard Film Archive, Morris, in response to questions posed by his interrogator Ann Marie Lipinski, Curator of the Nieman Foundation of Journalism at Harvard, noted that the most vociferous critics of American Dharma “wanted me to hold [Bannon’s] feet to the fire,” precisely as Morris, in the eyes of many, did to the subjects of his two prior political bio-pics, “The Fog of War” (Robert McNamara, 2003) and “The Unknown Known” (Donald Rumsfeld, 2013). However, Morris explained to his audience, his motive for making this movie was “to learn something” about Bannon and gain insight in Bannon’s “deep desire to destroy.” Apparently much of the media and political class prefer, to use Morris’ analogy, to play the part of ostriches who face danger by burying their heads in the sand

Morris, after noting that he came to believe that Bannon’s ideology is “bullshit,” nonetheless made it clear that the subject of “American Dharma” is far from stupid. To the contrary, he is “charismatic, articulate, and has read books.” Still, “there is something crazy about the philosophy.” Just prior to the HFA showing, Morris appeared on “Greater Boston” and told inquiring host Jim Braude that he leans toward “snake oil salesman” as a classification of Bannon, but this conclusion emerged only after many hours of conversations between the documentarian and Bannon, with the filming constituting, as Morris put it, “an excursion into Bannon’s mind.”

In an action that I think will live in the infamous annals of censorship, New Yorker editor David Remnick first invited, then, under pressure, disinvited Bannon from the annual New Yorker Festival. Morris expresses a low view of Remnick’s cowardice. The disinvitation “caused me trouble,” Morris said at the HFA. It implied that “this guy should not be heard. Why give Bannon a platform?” Or as Morris explained to The Boston Globe’s Mark Feeney, Morris’ erstwhile fans became critics when Morris disappointed their desire that the documentarian “hold [Bannon’s] feet to the fire.” But, Morris told Feeney, “I don’t hold people’s feet to the fire.” Morris’ method is to seek to understand

And so, if the country can calm down long enough, it might recognize the importance of allowing an Academy Award-winning documentarian to turn his talents not to destroying, but to probing this uniquely consequential but shadowy figure who, though since banished from a formal role, appears to wield some Rasputin-like influence behind the scenes. If this story cannot be told by Errol Morris without a sizable portion of the public reaching for their smelling salts, then Trump will have already inflicted more damage to the national psyche than I thought was the case. Trump may be a real problem, but the most .acute dangers emerge when the ostrich buries his head

If and when Errol Morris finds a distributor for American Dharma, I suggest that it is an obligation of patriotism and citizenship that Americans go to see it