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“Move Behind the Fence or You’ll Be Arrested”: Roberto Minervini on What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?

What You Gonna Do When The World's On Fire

Since moving to the United States in 2000, Italian-born director Roberto Minervini has become one of the foremost documentarians of the American South. His fifth feature, What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, marks a departure in focusing, for the first time, on African-American lives in the region. Shot between Mississippi and Louisiana, the film weaves together three parallel threads: a pair of young brothers, Ronaldo King and Titus Turner, whose fierce bond is evident from the jump; a musician/singer/bar owner named Judy Hill, who conducts community meetings aimed at consciousness-raising; and members of the New Black Panther Party, seen agitating against the killing of Alton Sterling. Interspersed throughout the film, shot in black-and-white (a first for Minervini), are sequences with the region’s Mardis Gras Indians, detailing their art and tradition. As in his previous feature, The Other Side, the film’s contemporary resonance is impossible to miss. It’s an impassioned act of portraiture that courses through with rage, fear, despair and a measure of hope. 

What You Gonna Do premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has since played in Toronto and New York. Ahead of its theatrical release by KimStim, I spoke to Minervini by phone about the project’s origins and the shifts in his working method over the years.

Filmmaker: From reading about your previous films, I know they often arise from your relationships with other people.

Minervini: This one is the exception. The nature of the project was nomadic, because it started with me traveling around the South and focusing on Louisiana and New Orleans to find African American musicians, people who would carry the legacy of music: New Orleans jazz, Delta blues. Through music, I thought perhaps I’d find a story about black America that ties the present to the past. I met Judy Hill, who ran a bar [the Ooh Poo Pah Doo] in New Orleans. From the get-go, this project was conceived completely differently than the others, which were shot and conceived in familiar environments, in my surroundings. This time, I was stepping into the unknown, into another reality with different, obviously racial connotations.

Filmmaker: When did it shift from becoming a music-focused documentary to what it is now?

Minervini: I had access to cameras, so I was always shooting. But it was maybe a year or over a year before shooting the film as we know it right now. Traveling to New Orleans, I first met other musicians, then Judy. Through Judy I met other people deeply rooted in the music traditions of New Orleans, among which were the Mardis Gras Indians. We continued to develop a relationship, knowing that at some point we would develop a story. I got to know Judy’s story, activism and care. It was outreach more than activism in the community. She did that constantly and that’s how the project shifted. I understood that if I were to spend time with people like Judy, they would lead me to another project. They wanted to speak, not to just play music or sing; they really wanted to make this project more raw. This is very important, because every time I make a film—no matter how visceral my approach is, no matter how close I feel to the people—there is still a part of me that approaches things conceptually, and I’m very wary of that. Thanks to the people I meet the conceptual approach fades away and reality emerges. To approach it through music was already conceptualization, an intellectualization of the project. But then, as usual, people brought me back to reality.

Filmmaker: It’s totally understandable that a woman like Judy Hill, a force of nature on screen, would shift the project. Perhaps this falls into the trap of what you call conceptualization, but this film, which balances three different stories, plus the scenes with the Mardis Gras Indians, is structurally very different from your previous work. Was that a challenge for you?

Minervini: Yes and no. As I got to see Judy and her outreach and meet generations of people, I immediately understood that if I were to follow all these people, I would need a set of parallel stories, and that these stories would not converge narratively. Having established that, I knew I needed to pay the utmost attention to how the discourse, the dialectics among the stories was going to work, especially politically. I was paying a lot of attention to the parallelisms between what was happening in one context, one story, one community versus another. This was especially true regarding the New Black Panther Party, whose message is overtly political. But in a way, that’s the easy part. The hard part was assembling this film. I did that for a year and a half. 150 hours of footage—and we had to sit down and make these stories dance together in unison. That was extremely hard.

Filmmaker: As you mentioned, the New Black Panther Party are an integral part of this movie. What was the process of meeting them?

Minervini: They came into the project a little later. I’d already filmed meetings in the community, like the opening meeting at Judy’s bar. In one scene that’s not in the final cut, they talk about the need to unite and reference the Black Panther movement of the ’70s. I thought: “I need to look for the Panthers today. I need to see if they are still active.” I surfed the web, found contact information and realized that the Black Panthers, even under a different name, were still very much active.

Filmmaker: Were there many restrictions in your work with the Black Panther Party? I know when you edited Stop the Pounding Heart you showed the family the film and sought their approval for certain things. Was that the case here as well?

Minervini: There weren’t restrictions, but there were probably two months of meetings before we started working together. With the film’s other subjects, I was at their service, meaning I was following, not facilitating or suggesting. With the Panthers, I was observing, recording and explaining step by step how I was going to do it, why I was doing it, why I was choosing the angles I was choosing, why I was pointing the camera in a certain way. In one of the first meetings with Krystal Muhhamad, the national chair of the Black Panthers, I was filming her, then I decided to move away from her. I remember having a conversation about making that executive decision to not record her while she was talking, because it was important for this film that I record other people and choose other angles or points of view. This is just an example to tell you that I had freedom. In the end, as I was editing chunks of the stories, I would send scenes over to them. The only other restriction was that the Party has a hierarchical structure. Although everybody is involved, we couldn’t bypass the line of command and film people without the approval of higher ranking officials. So the spokespeople in the film are the ones who were approved.

Filmmaker: Did you find that restrictive compared to the way you worked with other people in the movie?

Minervini: The underlying difficulty was the fact that I’m a white guy. Establishing trust is a big component of the way I work, which can be seen even in my relationship with Judy and the intimacy I reach with the Black Panther Party. Even though the discourse was highly political, working with them was a profoundly human experience. Having said that, that trust, from a political standpoint, was not supposed to be there. That was the whole point: the lack of reparations, and therefore the impossibility of a relationship based on trust. There were always boundaries, lines of demarcation that separated us because there was a mission there, whose goal was not only obtaining reparations, but—in the case of the Panthers, since they’re black nationalists—claiming their own country, their independence from white society. There isn’t trust from a political standpoint, and that is a very difficult, very different way of working. That requires a lot of political, ideological integrity, while also accepting this discrepancy that cannot be fixed.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask specifically about the clash outside the courthouse between the police and the New Black Panther Party. You see people being tazed and arrested, and the police are right there. What was that like to shoot?

Minervini: It is not something I wanted to shoot. It was extremely scary. I sensed that day was very tense. It was the first year anniversary of the death of Alton Sterling. Emotions were high. There were moments where I was alone near Panthers from out of state, some yelling at me that it wasn’t my place, or to be careful of what I was filming. They warned me to do the right thing, to let the truth surface without the manipulation typical of white-controlled media. I’d been warned in a very harsh way, so I understood from the beginning that it was going to be a very tense day. I was going to be in the middle of two institutions, almost between two fires. I filmed most of the scene because I’m the only one in the crew who could understand English well. We needed to hear the “Move behind the fence or you’ll be arrested” signal, because I knew from the experience of Ferguson that as as soon as the police say that then they can target the media. Meaning, they could’ve taken the footage, they could’ve detained us. So I needed to look for the fence far away. If you look at the scene when they [the police and the Black Panthers] clash, we were always in the middle. But as soon as the clash starts, we’re at the back, because we’ve moved behind the fence. I passed the camera on to Diego [Romero, the film’s DP]. The clash starts, we hear shots. They were rubber bullets, but we didn’t know if they were rubber bullets or real. I threw myself on the ground. Some of my crew members stayed and filmed that moment of the clash. I directed it from the ground and we were all terrified, because the attack was vicious, brutal and quick. 

Filmmaker: Were there any repercussions from the police afterwards? You had moved to the allowable point, so they presumably couldn’t take your footage away.

Minervini: The scene ends when the police make seven arrests and suddenly you see a line of policeman past the fence. There’s only them and us. That’s where we cut and got out of there very quickly because we thought: “This is our turn to get detained.” The decision-making was very quick. Repercussions… The police department of Baton Rouge held a press conference about 30 minutes after. They’d already identified my name and the production company’s name in the TV interviews. They mentioned in the press conference that all they knew was that we were Europeans—making a mistake, because I’m American. But apart from that we were Europeans, so they were already able to find information about us. Since then, I’ve been promoting this film everywhere. The Panthers traveled to London for a roundtable about activism in America tied to a screening of the film. I had calls from Homeland Security. Those were the main repercussions—not being under the radar anymore. But that was to be expected: to have institutions on my ass.

Filmmaker: Stop the Pounding Heart is implicitly political, because of who you’re focusing on. The Other Side, in the way it shifts focus from the first section with Mark and Lisa, to the second section with the militia, moves from the personal to the general, in terms of portraying a political side. It seems to me that What You Gonna Do makes those shifts from specific to general a lot more. Would you agree with that characterization?

Minervini: I would say, for the most part, yes. There is an evolution happening in my approach. Stop the Pounding Heart—when I filmed that I had been living in Texas for five years, then it became seven years, then, at the moment of the shoot, 10 years. There is a trajectory going from a microcosm to something macro that reflects my knowledge and awareness of the sociopolitical web or infrastructure in the American South. It took me years to really understand and get deep into the complexities of the South. So there’s definitely a path there, as I become more knowledgeable, more acquainted, more experienced. The political discourse becomes more complex: bigger, more explicit. At the same time, although the film gives a sense of that more explicit political discourse, I do feel I’ve achieved a heightened sense of intimacy. I got closer and closer to people and, through that, I allowed myself to paint a bigger picture. Throughout the process of Stop The Pounding Heart, I got very intimate. With The Other Side and What You Gonna Do, which involved sharing a knowledge and a view of what it meant to be in the South, I was a participant in this dialogue. Intimacy was achieved earlier. What makes the jump, what allows me to make the jump between the micro and macro picture, is the heightened level of intimacy I’m able to achieve. I’m from here now.  I’m recognized as a filmmaker from the American South. I speak with my own accent, but I speak their jargon, I speak their dialect. I’m familiar with their traditions and I’m rooted here. People see that, and once we are more similar we can be more intimate, more political, more unfiltered.

Filmmaker: On your films, you’re naturally asking your subjects to represent themselves. There’s always a tension with their performances. Did you feel like you suppressed that in this film more? The New Black Panther Party, for instance, are representing themselves in a certain way. How was it juggling those elements in this movie versus your previous ones?

Minervini: Since my approach is experiential, I talk about my filmography as a chronological, therefore experiential, journey. In the first films, I was concerned about the dilemma of observational cinema. How to deal with the inevitability of the performance kicking in when the camera is so intrusive. I was wrestling with that idea: How do I minimize performance? How do I let it emerge? I was not clear or confident enough to handle that, so I simply took everything, I didn’t get deeper into this reflection. It was the experience, and that was about it. I didn’t see performance as affecting truth. My duty was to observe and not worry about that. But then, I started to understand the importance of the performative aspects of those films. Performance is an amazing defense mechanism that allows characters to keep their guard up as they present themselves. There’s an aspect of that awareness of the camera that triggers their performance. I knew that, so I was waiting for those moments where their guard naturally goes down. Every character lowers their guard and these amazing moments of truth emerge. I’m more experienced, more capable of recognizing the difference between moments where there is excessive awareness of the camera and moments where the presence of the camera almost disappears, because this full immersion into the personal stories takes over, characters lower their guard and everything is so raw. So I’m very patient in the way I film and edit. I’m able to recognize those moments of purity. Usually when we edit the film we include those moments. Especially with this last film, I think there’s a greater immediacy. At least that’s my impression. 

Filmmaker: In the film, there’s the conversation with the two young brothers, Ronaldo and Titus, where they talk explicitly about race and color. I wouldn’t say it’s unnatural, exactly, but it doesn’t seem like something they’d broach without prompting.

Minervini: I get it completely. Those things don’t cease to surprise me, but I know the process now and the way I handle the shoot. That scene was, in a nutshell, the way I shoot—especially with children, where we had limited space and couldn’t go everywhere. In that case, the mother has instructed the children to stay home, so that was it. We had one location, two rooms. We got in one room. There’s control of the lighting, as you can see; the curtains are almost closed. Before everything happened, Diego [Romero, cinematographer] and I looked at the lighting conditions. We needed consistency, so we saw if the conditions to shoot existed. Okay, visually there were the conditions. So we hung out there, chose the couch. I asked what they want to do, and we started talking. They were talking, for some reason, about Muhammad Ali. They had a book, so Ronaldo read some passages to Titus about Muhammad Ali, they slid down and we started filming. 

That’s already a long time, probably 30 minutes to an hour of filming stuff. So they read and talked about Muhammad Ali, and that’s how the conversation about race gets triggered. They talked about Emmett Till, and imagined if, today, Emmett Till, Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama and, I don’t remember, a basketball champion, and Dr. King, of course—they said: “Can you imagine all of them together? It would be so cool!” Sometimes that happens clumsily: Not knowing where we’re going, there’s inevitable stiffness and awkwardness at first. All of a sudden, everybody lowers their guard, the conversation flows and two hours after you have a moment like Titus asking about the difference between skin color and race. It’s a very lengthy process of observation where I facilitate a space and let things evolve on their own.

Filmmaker: Over the past few years there’s been a lot of talk about “hybrid” documentaries and hybridization, labels that have been tossed around rather freely. I’m curious whether you’ve watched other films from your contemporaries, like the films of Robert Greene for example.

Minervini: I know Robert Greene. I got to know all of them recently. I found myself in the midst of a debate about “What is documentary? What is fiction?” I didn’t expect it to happen. To me, it was clear. I don’t come from any tradition. I studied at a very late age. I got my master’s in media studies. I got into documentary photography, which is pretty much my battleground. The core of that, at least the way I learned, was how to iconize, how to frame, how to capture a moment of truth. There’s a lot of theory about photography, about what photography does to image, to reality. When I started making films, my approach didn’t change; it was always about how to best convey what I see. In order to convey it to the audiences, I needed to use a sophisticated film language—sophisticated in the sense that I put the utmost care in the way that I present it. I care a lot about form, the way I shoot and the way we edit. There is continuity. There’s a way of covering angles, even shooting with immediacy. I do angle coverage, use one lens, maintain consistency in the contrast ratio, shoot at the same exposure, the depth of field is pretty much similar all the time. So there’s formal consistency and rigor, because that’s what I’ve always wanted since the beginning. There’s a formalist approach to this reality-based cinema. But at the end, I think that that has nothing to do with the debate between documentary and fiction—if by fiction we mean something that doesn’t stem from reality but fantasy. My approach has nothing to do with the documentary/fiction diatribe, but I got thrown into it. I’m not comfortable with it and, at this point, I’m not even thinking about it anymore.What I’m making is cinema, and it’s clearly stemming from observation. I’m not going to compromise on language or form because I’m observing versus rehearsing or directing.

Filmmaker: Speaking about those formal elements, what motivated your decision to shoot this film in black and white? Was that a choice from the beginning?

Minervini: From the beginning, for several reasons. Initially, I wanted to make a film that tied directly into the past, into a legacy, an oral tradition, so I wanted to tie it into the past visually as well. As the scope of the film changed, that idea of the continuum between the past and now stayed. As the film became more explicitly political and contemporary, I increasingly felt the need to visually connect it to the iconography of the civil rights movement. Since this film was so raw, I wanted to iconize all the people in the film and acknowledge that they carry the legacy that seems forgotten in time. But it’s not: it’s in them, their memory, their history, their words every day. There’s also the more technical motivation, which was to kill the discrepancies, the differences in light and color that every location would bring to the film. As I knew this film was going to have parallel stories, I didn’t want the distracting aspect of the visual jumps.

Filmmaker: It kind of reminds me of the Chinese documentary Disorder, which was sourced from online clips, security cameras and the like. The director, Huang Weikai made it all black-and-white—processed it to remove that visual difference.

Minervini: It’s interesting you mention that because in the beginning, early in the process, I was working with archives and researchers. We had an enormous amount of footage from TV channels, news outlets from all over the world of protests, riots, and clashes between the police and protestors, including the Panthers. I was working on those with a colorist and thinking of including them in the film. I was working on making the clips feel part of the film by smoothing out the difference between the TV and film quality and creating the same feel and texture. I worked for months on that with great results, but suddenly at some point I decided not to include it.

Filmmaker: What ultimately made you decide to leave it out?

Minervini: Because I think in the end, as we got closer and closer to the process, I saw all that the characters brought to the table the endless fight for equal rights. Sometimes it’s explicit, as in the case of the Panthers; sometimes it’s more covert. But it was there, and I didn’t want to be redundant. Even more, I didn’t want to heavy-handedly patronize something that doesn’t belong to my culture, to make a parallelism, to put all fights and riots together. That was appropriating something, and  a big manipulation. I needed to create a space where they could express themselves, and I was going to record it and put together the canvas that is the film. The choice to include the footage eventually seemed redundant and manipulative on my part.

Filmmaker: Earlier you used the world “unknown” in terms of making a film about black lives with black people. After this film, do you have any intention of exploring further? Can I ask what you’re working on next?

Minervini: I don’t know. There’s a lot of personal involvement and commitment with the people and their mission. I talk about keeping boundaries up, understanding roles during filming. I talk a lot about facilitating, respecting, observing. But there’s the other side, which is the non-filming—just life, where we are completely enmeshed. This experience binds us together. The aftermath of a shoot is that enmeshment, feeling together in something bigger than that. Right now I’m still so committed to this film and these people that, for the first time in my career, I have no time and emotional space to conceive of another project, which is something I’m still figuring out. I haven’t left the realm of What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? yet. When I’m able to move on, I’ll probably think of something else.

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