Roberto Minervini • Director of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
"It’s the story of America's subsoil"
- VENICE 2018: Documentary filmmaker Roberto Minervini talks about his latest film, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?
Roberto Minervini has lived in Houston, Texas for years with his Filipino wife and children. "My children have yellowish skin, so as a father and husband, I'm also experiencing racial issues. Division in the United States exists, and you can't pour cement on fragile foundations." The Italian documentary filmmaker is at Venice Film Festival in competition with What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? [+see also:
interview: Roberto Minervini
film profile], which focuses on a black community in Louisiana. In his documentaries, Minervini focuses on what he described today at the Lido as "America’s subsoil." "In my previous films I focused on the South, I documented the seeds of the reactionary and anti-institutional rage that led to Donald Trump's presidency. This time around I wanted to observe the lives of African Americans, delving deep into the roots of social inequality." The film was shot between Baton Rouge and Jackson – where up to 70% of the population is black, during the summer of 2017, just after Alton Sterling and Philander Castile were killed by local police officers.
Cineuropa: How did this documentary come about?
Roberto Minervini: The initial idea was to tell the story of the African American community through the last bastion of their traditions, folk blues. So we met up with Judy Hill, one of film's protagonists, who comes from a family entirely dedicated to jazz in New Orleans and who runs the historical bar Ooh Poo Pah Doo. She opened the door to that world for me.
The musical aspect to the film is interesting...
Native Americans have been participating in parades at the Mardi Gras with elaborate costumes, dances and songs for over a century. Music plays a crucial role in their performance, which consists of a call and response song accompanied by percussion. Native American music at the Mardi Gras represents a direct link between their traditions and those of African slaves.
When filming in New Orleans, the police fired bullets at the crew. Did you encounter any other difficulties while filming the documentary?
I didn’t encounter any difficulties on an artistic level. But there were some emotional difficulties when it came to filming in an atmosphere where abandonment and violence are the order of the day. What struck me most is their different perception of violence: boys, like Ronaldo and Titus, who star in the film, manage to live with a violence that would we would find unbearable. I dropped to the ground to avoid the bullets, but they deal with it every day.
How do the Black Panthers of the '60s compare to the New Black Panthers for Self-Defence in your film?
One of the lessons I learned is the need to answer this question in two ways: from the point of view of white people, things have changed for the worse, but for black people, institutionalised racist violence has always existed, the Ku Klux Klan hasn’t ever disappeared. Murders and abuse actually increased during Obama's presidency. Today, Trump is giving a voice to a shared anti-immigrant rhetoric, he's just telling America's truth.
Is the film based on a screenplay?
There was no script and there was no direction, the film is based solely on observations, which caused some problems budget-wise. The real writing phase came with the editing, we worked with Marie-Héléne Dozo on 180 hours of footage. Gianfranco Rosi himself commented that "in the documentary there are magical moments in which reality seems scripted."
Why did you choose to film in black and white?
To give an aesthetic balance to different stories that don’t converge on a dramaturgical level and were filmed at different times of the day. Colour can also be invasive, black and white film makes it clear that this is not my story. It's as if the director has stepped aside.
(Translated from Italian)
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