We Walk All This Together: An Interview with Roberto Minervini

The director discusses his documentary "What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?," about the lives of black Americans in New Orleans.
Daniel Kasman

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire

While many art films may judiciously, tactfully, or uneasily remain at a distance from theirs subjects, Italian director Roberto Minervini takes the opposite approach in his searing, deeply moving documentary, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? His film, shot digitally in confrontative, high contrast black and white, gets close—very close—to his subjects, weaving together three separate stories of black Americans from New Orleans such that we’re aggressively faced with their strength, anger, fear and sorrow much more than with the details of their lives and homes.

Framed between bookends showing the crafting of Mardi Gras outfits in a tradition of African Americans disguising and celebrating with Native Americans costumery so as to parade freely, the film starts with the young teen Ronaldo and his younger, more skittish brother Titus. They are introduced in a declaratively on-the-nose scene that earns its heavy hand: Encountered in a haunted house where Ronaldo encourages the increasingly terrified Titus onward, it announces the film’s subject as the environment of fear America has constructed for its black citizens. Later, the boys wander the streets and play by the nearby levy, and we see between them a touching dynamic of the older struggling to be a role model to his brother while their father is incarcerated. In several scenes of compassionately tough admonition, the boys’ mother insists on their returning home each day safely before dark, and that Ronaldo take on a leadership position with his brother, telling the teen of the pressure he has to overcome to be an example in a world that has so many treacherous temptations. With Titus, we see Ronaldo be genuinely thoughtful and encouraging, but we also see him straining to act responsible, confident and authoritative, introducing a theme of performance for others that continues through Minervini’s other characters.

Of those, bar-owner Judy Hill is the most astounding presence of the entire picture, a woman who has seemingly seen and experienced it all and isn’t afraid to testify, rage, and inspire. Her bar, which she struggles to keep under her ownership throughout the film, becomes a gathering place for communal anger, lamentation, and solidarity, led by Judy’s nails-tough exterior and deep reservoirs of feeling. Several of her admissions to and encounters with those around her contain the emotional impact of a gut punch, and a later impassioned musical performance at her place lends the film a very welcome positive cathartic release. But it isn’t long before we go deeper with her into her past, her struggles with abuse and drugs, and her current challenges with the gentrification of her neighborhood that not only is pushing her out, but also her elderly mother. The film’s last thread on a third kind of grass-roots neighborhood leadership focuses on the New Black Panther Party, whose induction meetings we see, along with their community outreach to the homeless, unofficial investigations into nearby racist crimes of inconceivable horror (the beheading of a black man, whose body was then burnt in nearby woods), and highly vocal but non-violent rallies keeping the names of slain black men alive and admonishing the police for their indifference.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? plunges into the thick of it, conjuring long histories of pain and anger engendered by American society and institutions—and conjured in the immediacy of those things blazing directly before our eyes. Any kind of cinematic distance would be an effective denial of the profound tenacity of these New Orleans residents in the face of a fearful, deeply imbalanced existence in their home country. Roberto Minervini’s film is a reminder, one we sadly always seem to need, that history’s sprawling canvas is populated by individual lives that are desperately struggling to live and make the world around them better for those who come after.

While his new film has been traveling around the world from festival to festival, we spoke with Roberto Minervini about his living in the American South, his barometer of fear, and how he chooses and works with his subjects.

NOTEBOOK: What attracts you to the American South as a place to stay, live, and film?

ROBERTO MINERVINI: I live in Texas, and I’ve been there for eleven years. I wasn’t attracted to the South, at first. My approach to the thing has always been the fight-or-flight model, which is, you know, whenever presented with a situation, you have to make a choice. And many times I choose to fly, to go the other way, and that’s the first instinct. Going to the South was no exception, I wanted to get out of there during the first year. And then I chose to stay, because wanting to run away is just symptomatic of fear, and a paralyzing fear of the unknown. And what is the “unknown” here? Is it a political unknown, is it the unknown in terms of a cultural tradition, religion, masculinity in the South? And all of that I explored, then, in my cinema. And then it became the political extremism, the resurgence of right-wing ideology, and the right-wing grassroots movements…

There’s all a continuum of that, starting from the gender roles to the role of religion. And I got to a point where I could experience the tangible aspects of what the racial divide means. Going beyond a racial divide, it seems like a resurgence of hate and intolerance, and really there is almost a nostalgia for the genocide, or for segregation, or for lynching—and everything is happening again. Their nostalgia becomes people taking action again. So yeah, I stayed in the South. The South contains stories, a hotbed for stories, they’re so raw and unfiltered, and I’m drawn to that. I’m drawn to that because I’m scared. The barometer for that is my fear. And I’m so terrified. I’m terrified of living there. I live with the lights on, I’m rebuilding a fence right now with cameras, I have prop guns in my house. So that fear obviously always either pushes me to want to leave or to dig deeper. So that’s really why. My relationship with the South has been one of fear and love at the same time.

NOTEBOOK: Even though your films are mostly about their subjects, are they then also a process for you to personally confront things that scare you?

MINERVINI: Absolutely, a catharsis always happens during the film. Absolutely. It’s no coincidence that I started because my mother-in-law was dying—in the South, as a Chinese immigrant. There was a sense that when you’re about to end this journey, and you do it in a land that you’ve only been partially part of, that the loneliness of dying is extreme. The sense of longing, me, another foreigner, spending time together, understanding she would leave land that was never hers. That could open up a chapter on the condition of Asian Americans in this country, being married to an Asian American family, how invisible they are… So I started there, and that was my first film.

And then I moved on to another film, The Other Side [2015], and in the film we see this woman who is disfigured, a lonely foreigner dying in Texas. I saw a continuation with issues that belonged to me too, there’s always parts of me: there is the loneliness of childhood, a dysfunctional family, there is the slippery slopes of drug addiction. Stop The Pounding Heart [2013] was one of the most tense experiences of my life, because I have a very difficult relationship with religion. Because I’ve been forced to be an atheist. I was punished for sneaking out and going to church in a Catholic town because my family were fervent atheists. And I was punished for that. The punishment, for me, didn’t come from God. No matter where I looked, I was going to Hell because of God, I was going to Hell if I loved God because my family would have sent me to Hell. So that’s a huge drama for me. I had to deal with my own existential crisis, so that’s a big turning point for me, a big moment where I really walked through fear. “I’m going to attack, I’m going to love people, I’m going to love God.” Because I need to ask them how things work: how can you love me and love God at the same time?

And then, on the way to here, on the way to this film, what I’ve really questioned, now that I’ve become an American—I’m a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen, I live a very more-than-comfortable life, more than I could have ever envisioned when I was growing up in Italy—and now, is this a point of arrival? Or, how do I get there? I’ve realized that I got there because I had a golden ticket, being a white European, especially from such a beautiful country like Italy. Police, when they stop me for traffic violations, I know that I can say I’m from Italy. And we end up talking about how beautiful Venice is, how Rome is—and I get away with it. So then I said: there’s something I need to explore here. And a long journey started. Of course, this is another very, very cathartic personal journey, on this film.

NOTEBOOK: How did you come to New Orleans as the location for What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

MINERVINI: Because I was thinking originally that I wanted to make a film about the roots of African American music, which stems from African tradition, obviously, and a lot of the music production before the recordings of the Smithsonian Institute in 1932—by John Lomax, and then Alan Lomax—a lot of the music came from the tradition of the plantations, and then could be found in jail, in prison… a lot of these musicians were in prison, singing the blues. It was a pre-blues time. And I wanted to tell the story of Lead Belly, and Lead Belly, from Louisiana, lived in Texas, lived in New Orleans… So I went searching for musicians, and that’s how I met Judy Hill, who comes from a family of musicians, all of them more-or-less accomplished and all of them ended up in poverty, and misery. So that’s how I ended up in New Orleans, and Judy was the starting point for me.

NOTEBOOK: So the starting point in terms of the music wasn’t the Indian costumes of Mardi Gras, which the film begins with, but rather Judy Hill?

MINERVINI: It was Judy and her singing. I started hanging out at her bar, for a long time, it took me maybe two years before we started filming, and I had no idea that Judy was going to be one of the catalysts if not the catalyst of the film. And through her, she’s a queen. She’s part of the Indian Mardi Gras tradition, and through her I met the Mardi Gras Indians, and started to dig into their culture. And then I met other people. And only then I realized that I could start with Judy telling her story and then I could start digressing and telling other stories, and independence came a little later.

NOTEBOOK: During this two year period at the Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar after making The Other Side, are you consciously thinking “this is research”? That this is the space, and these are the people, and you’re feeling it out—for yourself, and also getting them comfortable? What’s the purpose of that time spent while you’re there?

MINERVINI: In a way—and after the fact—you could call it research. It’s my investigation. But what that is is really starting to get to know people, listening to people and listening to the stories, taking mental notes. It’s my process, an eagerness of knowing the unknown. And I knew very little about this community in Louisiana, they’re not really accessible to white people just because white people don’t go there, not because they’re not welcome there. And they don’t go for obvious reasons, one of which is the socio-economic conditions, the despairs that you touch with your hands every day. So, that was it.

And then it’s about time, time’s always diluted or dilated because I’m also a very slow-paced kind of person, I move like a snail, I film like a snail, I’ve never filmed more than six hours in a day, ever in my life. I’ve never done night-time shooting, or sunrise shooting, in five films! It happened once, and I needed to take two days of a break. So I’m very slow-paced, it’s really about hanging out. You’re having a chat, and maybe another day hanging out at somebody’s place, and later in the day being at some kind of event, being together. Over and over until one day, I feel that, yeah, we’re ready to film.

And, I want to add, when are we ready to film? Well… that doesn’t coincide, or overlap with how or if the project is in place, if it’s financed already. Because usually when I’m ready to film it is because we’re all willing, and able, and available, and usually what happens, for me, is that there’s never enough money. It always happens like that, and we start anyway, and hope that things will be OK. But this time, it wasn’t OK. This time, as the vendors came on board, and as the project seemed to become one where we pass the baton to the characters and let the stories be told without really an ending point, without clear vision of the end result—perhaps the essence, but not the end result—then some investors started withdrawing. The [New Black Panther Party] jumping on the project was also reason for people to be hesitant, and wanting to start to say: “let’s see when the film is done.” So this time, we struggled mightily to finish the film. We struggled mightily. I think we’re all in debt—and I underestimated the impact, negatively speaking, about wanting to make a film like this, so raw, so unfiltered, about Black America. But White America, especially liberal institutions ostracized me, claimed cultural appropriation. Which, again, is highly documented. There’s a lot of literature about cultural appropriation, this is not a case of cultural appropriation—at least, for one, I’ve engaged in a serious debate about that. So that card was being played, and they made it very difficult. So this time it really was a labor, it was an act of militancy: we need to finish this, it doesn’t matter whatever we have to do to finish it. So it was really difficult.

NOTEBOOK: Earlier you were saying that you spend a lot of time with people, and that slowly the circumstances and atmosphere and story before you tells you it’s time to start filming. In the case of spending time with Judy, that focus comes into play. But are you spending time with others, in other places, and that focus doesn’t come? Is what we’re seeing one fragment of your time spent searching?

MINERVINI: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. We see these kind-of success stories, where we spend a lot of time together and there was such symbiosis, such a will to keep working together and telling their stories, such a complicity. To the point that we continue, and those are the stories that are in the film. But there are so many stories where you spend time together, but things fall apart, or you decide to withdraw. Or we weren’t able to be so open and honest, and transparent to the end. There were always moments where I couldn’t go past that. So, yeah, it’s a matter of choices. That’s why I need several months and 150 hours of footage to then extract a couple of hours of stories. But there’s a lot of stories that I’ve tried to tell.

NOTEBOOK: Since you started with Judy, and Judy is such a force of nature, was there a temptation to make the film just about her? When did it come into play that you wanted to flesh it out almost dialectically to create an argument with the film’s other three segments?

MINERVINI: There was more than a temptation to make it about her. I was very drawn to make it about Judy. And that is why it helps, from the beginning, to make choices. It’s a process of letting go, a process of passing a baton on to these people. As I was saying, for financing that doesn’t work very well, but for filming, when I say I was committed to all of these people, I am committing to spending time with all of them no matter what the end result would be, because this isn’t my commandment, this is: I’m at your service and I’m going to depict all of your stories, and then make choices. And that prevented me, the director, as an auteur, to make a U-turn and just follow Judy, because it would have made sense, it would have been very plausible and probably a very powerful way of telling a story, of a single woman’s struggles… but I didn’t want to. There were dialectics, there were voices that could communicate. I was really confident that a dialectic among the stories existed, and that would have been a conscious choice from me [to stick only to Judy and make] a film that says a lot about my voice. I would have shut down other voices to really give space to my voice. I need to be very careful with myself, with my own presence, with my own voice. That’s why I focus a lot on just being very careful, if I’m going heavy-handed, if I’m making decisions that are too drastic, that start to look like the image of myself.

NOTEBOOK: You have been talking about “passing the baton,” and I know about your previous films you talk about collaborating with your subjects. What does that mean in practical terms? Especially for a film like this, where it seems like you’re hands-off, even though your presence with the camera is felt quite often.

MINERVINI: It means sharing, a lot of that has been done in the hanging out—in this case, it’s two years, it can be more, it can be less—where we share. We know the points of convergence where there’s mutual understanding, and we trust that we understand each other. Maybe it’s a non-experiential process, maybe there’s similar experiences, or we do not, we do not converge. So then I express my willingness to know more, and I follow their lead. A specific example with Judy is where she was going through a lot personally. She was losing the bar, and that pushed her to dig into the past, the roots of how she got there… and the family was falling apart. I remember the scene of [her] making the phone call, and losing the bar, talking to the cousin, and finding out that he didn’t know where [his] mother was buried. And going to the crack house, where she spends a lot of time—going back to the origins—that was just a day. That was done in a day. And that was Judy, having made the phone call, and Judy just leading us. And I followed… that was one of the moments, that was passing the baton. I didn’t have any requests of Judy, and every time something like that happens, we start, we ask where to meet, and then I’m completely at service.

NOTEBOOK: But that’s different in a way from you just filming every day, for fourteen days in a row? In this case she tells you: “come, shoot, I’m doing things”?

MINERVINI: Right, yeah. Letting go of the control doesn’t mean that we’re going to observe no matter what. It’s not like D.A. Pennebaker’s approach, of being a presence but trying to be invisible, being far away. It’s the opposite. Like you say, we’re very close. We talk every day, and we talk about what happens. Together we try to understand what tomorrow will be. And sometimes we’re together and we don’t film anything. Sometimes we do, but it’s never seven days in a row, because I always film with other people, I try to alternate—sometimes it’s two or three days in a row, then we take a step back because of the emotional management. All of that we need to take care of, especially after a day like that. Maybe after a day like that we hung out without filming. So we had to always be careful of what becomes co-dependence and the enmeshment that it plays in the emotional realm, all the time. And that’s why I split my time, and it’s very healthy for us and for them to understand that we’re there. There’s a symbiosis among us but not necessarily enmeshment, because we’re not even enmeshed ideologically. I’m not the voice of black people. So there must not be enmeshment, to the best of our ability. I’m very sensitive about that.

NOTEBOOK: How does that feel for you, emotionally, to be someone who is both an outsider but also an insider, that you’re so comfortable with them, and them with you, but you must also self-regulate a distance because you aren’t old friends, you didn’t grow up together, you’re not from the same place?

MINERVINI: Exactly. I feel it’s really hard, and it’s extremely difficult, because I’m not equipped to handle the emotional tsunami that hits me at any given point. And that’s why I need my own space, and that’s why I film bringing always my family, including my children and my nanny with me. I have a house, I reproduce my normal life. My kids usually come in summertime, the core of the shoot is in summertime when kids go to summer camp—and so I have a family life, and that’s where I go and process my emotions. I have a lot of bottled up emotions that could push me, or could lead me, again, into very, very dangerous enmeshment—in the sense of entitlement, identification, appropriation, appropriation of the pain, appropriation of this horror, appropriation of history. It’s a very slippery slope, and that’s why when we get to a point where we both think that we’re suffering, or are angry or are indigent to the same degree, then it’s time to step back and go be a dad, go on father duty, and process my emotions in a different way. Again, the catharsis is also my own business, I need to take care of it, because at the end of the day I am there as a filmmaker. I’m their medium, and I cannot be an emotional mess… otherwise I’d disqualify myself. That’s something I actually do, I don’t believe in a one-man show, because there are times when I disqualify myself. I redeem myself if I’m fit for carrying on with the shoot that particular day, and I let my crew work on their own, and then somebody else can take the emotional hit of the day. That’s all very, very important for me, how to handle it emotionally.

NOTEBOOK: How did you gain access to the New Black Panther Party? It sounds like that came in a little bit later in the process.

MINERVINI: It came in a little bit later, because that was more of a formal approach, an email through the website. A reply arrived, with a willingness to talk on the phone. And for them finding out, on the other side of the phone that there was a foreigner but yet an American… then finally accepting to meet in person, wanting to participate, and then both a “yes” and “no” from both sides, because we couldn’t find a way, or a time, and also they needed to be part of an ensemble. You tell the story, and you have to have these dialectics with other people, not to mention [they have to] trust me as the carrier of the message, as a white European-born man. And then we started together, and then Krystal Muhammad, the National Head of the Panthers, called it a very spiritual decision, of entrusting me with them and their story. That’s how it really started. I think there’s a lot of intimacy in the way I filmed them, it’s different in a way, it’s an intimacy of being allowed… or the solemnity, the intimacy shows up in terms of the solemnity of the moment. Like the orientation from the Panthers, it’s the solemnity of the message that comes out in a very powerful way. Or the aftermath of the clash with the police, where we were allowed to be there, and we’re allowed to witness the solemnity, and the pain, and it was very intimate. So it’s a different kind of intimacy.

NOTEBOOK: That section struck me as very ritualistic, in a way. You’re observing groups performing what they’ve performed before, whether it’s a protest or an initiation or a group action. Rather than seeing something happen before you, you’re seeing recreations and a re-assertment of a group activity.

MINERVINI: Yeah, it’s true. I think it contributes to the film the kind-of circular quality. There’s a circular quality to it, it’s monotonal, it also refers to—perhaps—the monochromatic aspect to the film which contributes to the sense of [there being] a continuum there, there’s equanimity among the stories, and there’s also a way that it’s very circular. It’s something very circular, there are these moments that happen, there’s no reconstruction, but everything unfolds in a very circular way. There’s sometimes a kinetic force that pushes, there’s sometimes what can feel like inertia, because everything is so eerily stale. It seems like there’s something powerful, and yet stale. Like on this very intimate conversation, for me it contains so much power, violence, and anger. So I see that all the time, a gathering together, the way that’s explosive, being one-on-one, the strength of the voices, the stares, the looks, and the fear. It was all there, there’s no need to re-think anything.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things that struck me about the film most strongly, was the idea of leadership—that the brother leads his brother; Judy is her community focal point where she leads a group, she’s a role model; the Panthers obviously are trying to do something involving leadership. And leadership is related to performance in a way, you need to be able to be in front of people and represent yourself. I was wondering how much you felt like you were attracted, in this film, to people who needed to be leaders, and therefore in front of your camera would be very conscious of performing for you?

MINERVINI: I think I was aware of the fact, that’s what I was looking for, and I was happy to have people who had the ability to perform. By that, I mean they had the ability, or an awareness of a defense mechanism which is the performance, meaning being able to stand up to the camera. Sometimes it’s standing up to a camera. Without flinching. Because that defense mechanism is extremely necessary, in films like this one, or my last three, that use extremely long takes, without ever cutting. It was extremely necessary to be able to rely on their performance, when the camera is on. By “performance,” I don’t mean that there’s anything prepared, or scripted, by performance we mean being able to use a body, a language, the language of the body, and all that is empowering. But then, they will inevitably lower their guard, and there is always this moment we call “vulnerability” which is almost unfiltered, transparent truth, or an essence of their true selves that always emerges. Performance is very important, meditation could be a performative aspect, breathing techniques. The ability for all these people that I’ve chosen to take a deep breath and start as if they’ve done this all their lives, it’s a signal of strength, an awareness of the defense mechanisms that will help them through a process like this, which is is inevitably looking inside, starting from within. It’s looking inside themselves, and their stories. It’s an extremely scary place, to be so vulnerable. So to do it, these people need to be performers, to have the awareness of a performance aspect. That’s what it is. I’m aware of that, and I welcome that aspect of the performance very much in my films.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like that performance is almost a prerequisite for survival? That this is almost a survival mechanism that helps them get through, not just help the people around them, but as themselves for themselves?

MINERVINI: Absolutely. And I think performance is an experiential quality of the self. So in this case, it doesn’t have to be seen as “armor,” it’s just using these handmade tools to survive. They’re tools that can be weapons, that can be weaponized, it all depends, they could be weaponized or it could become a moment of intimacy. So, yes, it’s very important for survival, and I think that’s part of human nature. And in those cases, when there’s so much fear… because what I found in this community really was the fear of the white person is enormous, immense… the fear of being harmed, or being lied to by white people is enormous. It’s clearly a trauma, a national trauma. So I see performance as definitely an act of survival, and the performance aspect subsides when there’s this understanding that I’m actually not a harmful presence; but again, history is against us—but despite history we are able to hold hands and go through this process. Even if we remain one on the white side and one on the black side of society, or the dark side and the bright side, we walk all this together.

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