The Land of the Unknown: Roberto Minervini on What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

By Jordan Cronk 

Writing for Cinema Scope in the winter of 2017, director Roberto Minervini reflected on a new wave of philistine cinema in America. For Minervini, this “covert-yet-not-so-subtle nationalistic, reactionary” brand of filmmaking—exemplified by the likes of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015)—is a prime example of how Hollywood, operating under the guise of liberal nonpartisanship, contributes to right-wing fear-mongering and the demonization of the Other. As an American and/or otherwise reasonably well-equipped moviegoer, it’s easy to identify with his frustration. But what seems doubly vexing for Minervini, one of contemporary cinema’s most dedicated and thoughtful chroniclers of the American South—where he’s lived and worked for over a decade since moving to the US in 2000—is the social and cultural misrepresentation that these films help proliferate. In modest but forceful opposition to this movement, Minervini has worked, over the course of four adventurous and increasingly troubling films about the South, to complicate such notions, presenting instead a sensitive yet problematic portrait of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised, their fears and desires, pleasures and pastimes, as well as their anger and discontent.

A singularly creative and fearless voice in the ongoing evolution of nonfiction filmmaking, the Italian-born Minervini has consistently pushed himself out of his comfort zone, challenging his own biases and beliefs from project to project. Rather than hinder his ambition, his status as a foreigner has managed to facilitate a productive symbiosis with his subjects, one based on a shared sense of empathy with the outsider. With his early “Texas Trilogy,” a trio of tender and beautifully crafted features that is comprised of The Passage (2011), Low Tide (2012), and Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), he captured the core years of the Obama administration and, with offhand prescience, the palpable undertow of disaffection coursing through the lives of his everyday subjects. Certain images from these films, variously poignant and unsettling, cast a long shadow over what was to come: a large-scale version of Obama’s iconic “Hope” poster in The Passage; the neglected youth of a blue-collar community in Low Tide; the night sky lit up by a burning cross in Stop the Pounding Heart. By the time of The Other Side (2015), a harrowing look at a white, working-class Louisiana community ravaged by drugs, blinded by racism, and emboldened by violence, subjects that in Minervini’s early films may have once seemed quaint, anomalous, or negligible were now familiar, urgent, and undeniable.

Minervini’s fifth feature, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, is a furious missive from the front lines of a fractured America. Named after a 19th-century spiritual and assembled from nearly 150 hours of footage shot between Louisiana and Mississippi in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the film thrums with the grace and righteousness of a soul-stirring sermon. Interspersing artful footage of the Mardi Gras Indians as they prepare to perform in the annual New Orleans parade, Minervini tells three larger, unrelated stories of African-American characters: Renaldo and Titus, two young brothers living with their single mother in workaday Mississippi; Judy Hill, a Louisiana bar owner and abuse survivor; and the Southern chapter of the New Black Panthers Party, marching in protest of the then-recent murders of innocent civilians Alton Sterling, Phillip Carroll, and Jeremy Jackson. Shooting in stately, high-contrast black and white, Minervini renders these lives in vivid, plainspoken terms. Their individual dramas speak to those of the everyday African-American experience, and to that of the history of Black America in turn: of children instructed by their mother to be home before the violent veil of nightfall; of a persevering woman struggling to make a life for herself within a system designed to keep her down; and of protest in the face of pervasive injustice and indignity. Subtly accumulating discrete but galvanizing moments, the film places the personal and political side by side, finding dignity and strength amidst the rubble wrought by hundreds of years of systemic prejudice.

Largely foregoing traditional observation, Minervini instead favours rapport and reciprocity, crafting scenes and facilitating onscreen moments in collaboration with his subjects. It’s difficult to imagine such intimacy and immediacy being achieved through other means, and indeed, what results is a selection of indelible characters, linked through an innate and tragic plight. Early in the film, Minervini draws a sharp line from innocence to activism, as the touching naïveté of the two boys—exemplified by an exchange where the younger Titus is taught the difference between race and skin colour by his brother—is juxtaposed with the activities of the Black Panthers, whose nonviolent demonstrations are eventually and invariably met by the police, in the film’s climatic scene, with excessive force. But it’s Hill, whose story evolves in heartrending fashion from her fight to save her bar and her relationship with her dying mother to an even more personal mission to support those fighting addiction, who by the end emerges as a de facto star: passionate and charismatic, her presence cuts through the narrative with gripping force. While in some ways just a small piece of a populace’s struggle, Hill’s story is nonetheless indicative of a broader and more widespread affliction, one spelled out in the middle of the film on a case of seasonally themed Budweiser, whose cursive logo sets the current condition in stark relief: America.

Cinema Scope: It seems to me that What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? represents a slight shift in your approach, in that it was prompted by extenuating circumstances rather than by subjects you might have previously known or organically come across. Is that accurate?

Roberto Minervini: In a way that’s accurate. With my previous four films a relational factor did come first. There was that safety net of already having a relationship with the subjects, and then from there I began conceptualizing the films and exploring ways to tell the story. This time it was the other way around. It started with my intention to dig a little deeper into race relations in America—Black America, and especially the racial divide of the South. So first I ventured off to Louisiana and Mississippi, and then I met people. But even if the starting point was different, once I was there the processes converged. Because when I arrived I pressed the pause button, and began to hang out and establish an intimate relationship with the subjects. It was only then that I saw the possibility for a film project.

Scope: Were you immediately compelled after finishing The Other Side to switch perspectives, or was it prompted by where America now finds itself?

Minervini: One answer is yes, because as I was filming The Other Side I was observing political turmoil, the downfall of the Obama administration, and the resurgence of these grassroots, hate-infused movements. And it was then that I thought about exploring the other side of the other side, so to speak. It was the right time, and I was motivated, and I felt seasoned and experienced enough to go and tackle an issue like this. And the reason I’m saying experienced enough is because I felt I finally had a stronger know-how, where I could hopefully avoid issues like cultural appropriation and properly handle issues of representation. So yes, the two projects definitely go together. At the same time I must say I’m inherently political as a filmmaker. I abide by the definition of politics as the observation or analysis of the dynamics within a community. I’m ideologically charged—the politics of cinema have been very important to me from the beginning. It’s true that after The Other Side I thought there was another story to be told. I wasn’t fulfilled. I was not done with my research or observation. I feel that throughout my filmography there’s a kind of experiential arc: my pattern, my path, my growth as a filmmaker is very experiential. Filmmaking is my training ground—my battleground. By the time of The Other Side I think I gained trust and confidence in my voice to be able to make this political side of my work more overt. I think my trajectory as a filmmaker shows a growth in self-esteem and confidence. I think the films are mirror images of who I was at a particular time.

Scope: I’m curious how you found your subjects, particularly Judy Hill.

Minervini: When the project began I actually had the idea of making a kind of period film. I wanted to tell a story of the past by observing people in the present. And I wanted to do this through music, by exploring the roots of African and African-American music and the link between them, which is pre-Mississippi Delta folk blues. So I was originally looking for people, even if they would be unaware that they would be telling stories of the past, who would be representative of that continuum of history and culture. I was looking for people who could carry the legacy of this musical heritage. And I met a lot of people in the span of two years, but eventually I met Judy at the bar you see in the film. She was the first person I met who ended up in the final project. I got to know her by hanging out at the bar, where she performed on Wednesdays. But at first I didn’t think she could be the centrepiece of the film. I always saw Judy as a kind of open door to both the communities in this old neighbourhood in New Orleans and the musical legacy that I just mentioned. I thought she could chaperone me through history, through present history—post-Katrina New Orleans—and also through the musical history of the South. But by the end I realized she embodied all those histories.

Scope: Questions of access constantly follow your films. Can you talk a bit about your philosophy with regards to the responsibility the filmmaker has to his or her subject, and how you navigate the relationships with your subjects after gaining this access?

Minervini: I’m operating in two realms: the filmic realm and a bigger, broader realm, which is me having a relationship with the people, places, and communities I inhabit. So I need to find a balance between how to make a film and how I want to live my life, and the repercussions of the film on my life. These people are part of my life. I’m always aware that I’m making a choice, and that making a film with people is a lifelong bond. I think about that responsibility—that accountability. As a person who tells stories I also keep in mind that this responsibility transcends the film. Making the film alone isn’t enough for us to sustain this relationship. Meaning that I’m aware of the huge consequence in representing these people properly and with care. I try to keep relationships with all of them alive and intact.

As far as my approach, it’s always a tough question to answer, because on one side there’s ethics and on another side there’s morals, and they inform one another. There’s the ethics of the observer, which is what to do, good or bad, from a subjective point of view. And then there’s the morality of it, which is good and bad as informed by society. So for me what it comes down to is the representation of the Other, which has to come from an agreement between me and the subjects: how they want to be represented. And that happens at every stage of the film. It happens before, when thinking of what we want to film; while filming; and while reviewing the material together and deciding what should be included in the film. All the people are involved in all these stages of the filmic process. And it’s been like that for every project. For every film I’ve shot I’ve had material that probably could have propelled the film further, material of great interest but that didn’t respect this idea or meet the criteria of treating everyone with dignity, of me representing the Other properly. So that’s really how I approach it: being aware that there’s a power struggle there, between the filmmaker and the subject, one that can’t be fully solved. That’s the unattainable task: eliminating the power struggle inherent in filmmaking.

Scope: And add to that the fact that you’re a foreigner, which is something that can’t really be solved either. In the case of this film, some might deem your motivations dubious or your perspective unnecessary. How do you reconcile your status as an outsider with your work about the South?

Minervini: It’s hard. For me it all comes down to the subjects. Criticism of my cinema is something I can’t control, and something I can’t really factor into how I’m going to approach a project. But I approach each of my projects very transparently. For each I come forward as an outsider, as a European transplant—this is something I talk about with the subjects, about the pros and cons of having me represent them. I’m a citizen of the South—I feel like a Southerner, like I belong to the South, having lived for a decade here, and almost two decades in the United States. And I think that shows in my knowledge of the dynamics of the South, whether race, culture, gender, or religion. And also in the language, in the slang I understand and can speak, having been a long-term resident. But at the same time I talk about how my European background informs who I am now. I talk about this explicitly. It’s important for them to hear about my dual perspective. It was especially relevant in the case of the Black Panthers. It was paramount for them to understand where I come from, even ideologically, for them to decide if they wanted to work with me or not. So it’s important for people to understand my true background, and sometimes that’s prevented me from pursuing some avenues and filming certain people. It all stems from being transparent.

Scope: Because of all these factors, did you find it even more difficult to gain access to and build the trust of these subjects than in your prior films?

Minervini: It was more difficult this time, because for this film I was moving into the land of the unknown, a territory inhabited by the Other. There was really that feeling of having a choice whether to be there or not to be there. So every time difficulties would arise, I always felt the anxiety of the choice to be there. Unlike in the other films where there was a kind of safety net, of being a white person among white people, where the worst-case scenario was never that bad. That’s the story of American history, really. At the end of the day, despite our ideological and socioeconomic differences, I was always going to be accepted as someone similar, a white guy. With this film it was extremely awkward for me to feel a pull, a pull to leave, to go back to my safe space, which is a space of whiteness. And that raised a red flag for me. Because of this I was able to take the pulse of where I’m at as far as really deeply understanding race relations, and where I’m at as far as having the seeds of racism in me, in terms of a fear of the Other, fear of black people—I was not immune to all that. It sounds pedantic to even say it, but I’m talking from a very primordial, very practical standpoint. My work is not cerebral or conceptual. I realized there’s something very physical about being scared and not wanting to be there. And that’s something that I talked about with the subjects. For them, there was the same fear: they’re very wary of a white guy going into their community. But by speaking so transparently, and making them part of this catharsis—by sometimes saying, “Look, I’m here, and I don’t want to be today. I don’t want to be surrounded by poverty or issues of discrimination and institutional abandonment”—we were able to understand and empathize with each other. I never put on the mask of a guy who’s on the side of the characters all the time—that would already be a false start.

Scope: Can you tell me about crafting the scenes with the two kids, particularly the race vs. skin colour conversation, which feel very much like you’re developing real moments into scenes to be performed for the camera?

Minervini: It’s all about expanding the concept of what observation means. It’s observation with the constraints of life. In the case of the kids, there were scheduling issues—rules about when we could go outside or not. I was also very sensitive about how to bring up the topic of growing up in a fatherless family, something that may not normally be brought up by them. But I facilitated a situation where they could talk about it, and they did. But it’s not something that we discussed. I try to let the characters lead me into their lives. I let them talk about what they want to do, about what they’re thinking at that moment. My intervention will then usually begin with space. I usually step in and decide a place—where something should take place. So it’s not re-enactment, it’s a guided process.

The other thing I control besides the space is the length—how much time we’re going to spend shooting these moments. And I push the limits on this. In the case of the conversation on the sofa, the space was chosen by me because of the lighting and sound conditions—that’s my set. But in those cases I don’t step in or intervene. I don’t inform them, I don’t ask them to repeat, I don’t rehearse, I don’t reshoot. So in order to capture those moments, it usually takes a long time. I just ask them to keep talking, to just be there as themselves until we’re done. And since I choose not to cut—I just replace the memory cards in the camera without re-slating—a moment like that can sometimes last an hour, an hour full of silences, speeches, and rambling thoughts. But again, these are things I’ve learned from experience. It’s like a Jim Morrison-esque approach, generating this tension, because of the length, before resolving. It can seem never-ending. And that helps create this catharsis, which ends up being spontaneous because they’re children. It’s an approach that’s rarely failed me.

Scope: The scenes with the Black Panthers feel like the most traditionally observational parts of the film. Was there any resistance from them to being filmed, or concern about how they would be depicted?

Minervini: Coming to an agreement with the Panthers was not necessarily a smooth process. We spent lot of time together. And for a while I think both parties felt we weren’t ready to work with each other—our expectations were different. It took a while to find a common ground about how the Panthers’ militancy and activism would fit into this bigger narrative. At first the Panthers struggled with that. I couldn’t guarantee or promise that they would be the central part of the film. At times I struggled with the fact that working with the Panthers would require a jump into the void: not only losing control, but also being put in situations that could possibly be dangerous. And you’re right, that is the most observational part of the film—that’s the Panthers taking control of the film. The leader of the party, Krystal Muhammad, called the shots completely. She told us who to mic, when to cut, when it’s time to shoot—she decides space and time. So my control was extremely limited, although I continued to be open with them and make my requests and give them immediate feedback on what I’m seeing. But there’s definitely an acceptance of the fact that they take maximum control of the time and space. That’s new to me, to not be given any control. But it all fits into this idea of trusting the process.

Scope: I’m curious how you go about shaping your films. The Other Side has a very distinct break three-quarters of the way in, while What You Gonna Do… weaves together multiple story threads. Are these structures determined in the edit, or are they mapped out early on?

Minervini: Well, like I said, I’m a facilitator, and my intervention for the most part is in finding the spaces. But I do have an idea about how all the parts that I’m filming can interact with each other, how they can communicate with each other. I always have a feel for the potential structure of the film. And as soon as I have these ideas I start sending messages and giving notes to the editor, Marie-Hélène Dozo. I inform her of what I’m thinking and what I think the possibilities are for how this story could unfold, and what the possible structure could be. For The Other Side I realized this while shooting, because for a long while I was only making a film about [the two main characters] Mark and Lisa. Although I had known the militia members for a long time and I had been invited to work with them, it took me a while to understand how I could take the leap and make the film two parts that communicate with one another. But for this film it was clear to me from the beginning that these four stories were not going to overlap, that this film would have more of a circular, chapter-like structure. I saw it clearly, but the specifics of it we found in the editing.

Scope: Stop the Pounding Heart was the first film you shot digitally, and you mentioned earlier how for some of the longer sequences in this film you changed memory cards rather than re-slate. Has switching from film to digital influenced other aspects of your shooting process as well?

Minervini: I think that’s the main, if not the only, reason why I switched to digital: to be able to shoot very long, continuous takes. At one point in one of my early films I was shooting one 400-foot roll for each take—so eight-and-a-half-minute shots. Which not only allowed me to expand the concept of observation, to welcome the unknown, and to push the boundaries of creating tension between me and the characters, but it also gave me a sense of urgency, because I really only have one chance to capture something. And in that case the physical limitations of film, of not having enough film rolls, played a role. So I thought that if I switched to digital it would at least give me the possibility for longer takes, but there wouldn’t be the problem of accumulating more material than normal because if I keep on filling memory cards with one shot, at some point we’d encounter a similar problem of not having enough memory space. So while the length of the takes has gone up enormously, the approach—playing with the limitations of the medium—hasn’t changed at all. But the benefits of digital, of being able to observe over extended amounts of time, has been crucial. It’s no coincidence these last three films have been shot digitally.

Scope: Were you always planning to shoot in black and white?

Minervini: I planned on it from almost the beginning. As I started to meet with these people and started to think I could work with them and tell a story that’s obviously emblematic of something much bigger, I began thinking that black and white could be a way of tying these stories to the iconography of the Civil Rights era. And that’s a way to keep that political discourse afloat. Because for me the tension of the film is given by the fact that this is not a story where people engage in dialectics, or even a dialogue among themselves: it’s really a dialogue between them and their own legacy. So for me it was important to keep that political layer very clear, and I think black and white informs the political aspect of the film very well. It also brings to my mind the iconography of the ’60s. Actually, I want to show you something. I have this, from April 6, 1970—one of the first Black Panthers magazines. That’s Bobby James Hutton, a Panther who was brutally murdered by the police. What’s interesting is that the language written in the magazine is the same language being used today by the Panthers. In a lot of ways the image of the Panthers exists in the collective memory in black and white, so for me this was the way to represent them.

Scope: I feel like most documentary filmmakers, if they were asked to shoot these same subjects in black and white, would adopt a more vérité style to try and preserve some notion of realism. But you don’t shy away from the highlighting the formal aspects of your work.

Minervini: To be honest I didn’t really expect the formal approach, or my aesthetic, to be criticized. I never thought, maybe naïvely, that this approach would seem like an aestheticization of the truth. And maybe that has something to say about prejudice regarding certain aesthetics, which come with preconceived notions about methodology. I never think in those terms. For me the intent to create a continuum in history, in black history, was clear. And not only that, but also the constant use of something much more formal, a form that is more classical, a language in cinema that is very well known, was clear. The film is shot in continuous takes with one handheld camera, but the editing cleans everything up. There’s no panning other than a few scenes when it was inevitable. So this formalistic approach was very classical. And the use of the close-up, again, decontextualizes these people, these icons, and brings the attention back to the history, to the dialectics of history. For me that was the approach that made the most sense. So I was taken aback that this approach could be seen as an aestheticization, which I actually thought shooting in colour would create. Because colour lends itself tremendously to manipulation of what’s beautiful and what’s not. I thought if anything, this would be a more democratic approach.

Scope: You’ve been making films about Trump’s America since long before he was ever elected. Do you feel a new sense of responsibility for depictions of the South now that he’s in office, and do you plan on continuing to make films about the South?

Minervini: Yes, definitely. I don’t know how or if or when I’m going to do it, what or when the next project will be, because it’s really hard for me to find the strength to make another project. I need to dig into myself and kind of reflect on what I’m doing. It’s very personal, but sometimes it’s difficult to keep going. I don’t measure anything in terms of success or failure—all I want is for filmmakers to be taken seriously and to start a debate. And I think it’s happening. But I do feel, no matter the medium, that it is important for me to continue to tell stories about the South. What interests me in particular is this fear of the Other, the fear of difference that has come back in America. It’s a phenomenon that’s always been there and that we know stems from the cultural pluralism of America, which itself breeds xenophobia. This country is stuck in the past. Even with racial classifications, which come from the ’40s—categories of black, white, and Asian. That was all done so those who identify with the white category could be the middle ground and could avoid being seen as either a positive or negative thing. White became the neutral ground, and I feel very uncomfortable with that. So I think it is important to keep exploring these contradictions, and how America has dealt with race and the Other. The South is interesting because here the neutral ground, the whiteness, is extremely virulent and violent, which is a contradiction in terms. I care about being here, and while I am I’ll keep putting my finger into the wound. Cronk Jordan