What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is the story of a community of black people in the American South during the summer of 2017, when a string of brutal killings of young African American men sent shockwaves throughout the country. A meditation on the state of race in America, this film is an intimate portrait into the lives of those who struggle for justice, dignity, and survival in a country not on their side.
”A white Italian man (albeit one who lives in Texas) making a film named after a 19th-century spiritual about socially oppressed black Louisiana and Mississippi, Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is a so-called 120-minute ‘documentary’ lyrically shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black and white, [and at the same time] a political film that has as some of its subjects actual political activists (the New Black Panthers), but in itself isn’t activist, rather humanist – because Minervini is a filmmaker, not an activist, or maybe it’s more appropriate to call him a magician.
Because what Minervini actually is doing, and I mean this in all honesty, is in fact magic: how he manages to create such relationships between filmmaker and what we’ll call, for the sake of argument, ‘documentary performer,’ is well-known now, post so-called Texas Trilogy, to be a product of a long immersion in these communities, to the point of dissolving the border between the camera and the subject, between reality and construct. Though how it actually is done is magic, because you’re never going to see the tricks revealed unless you’re standing next to him on location, in these peoples’ houses and workplaces, for just as long as he does, which for a viewer or a critic is an utter impossibility.
That this is also urgent filmmaking pretty much goes without saying. What You Gonna Do is what the French still call engagé, which does not mean a call to arms but rather a desire for self-reflection that, eventually, might lead to the honing of the spirit of the political animal. (...) These are people’s lives we’re talking about, and we have only been granted the privilege to be in their presence for a little more than two hours, which, we should remember, has been edited down from nearly 150 hours of footage, and editing means that choices have been made.”
Roberto Minervini: [A catalyst] was Judy Hill 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. 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.
Daniel Kasman: During this two year period at the Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar after making The Other Side (2015), 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?
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, (...) 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. 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. (...) 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.”
Minervini: I always use one camera [in this case the Arri Amira], one lens, and it’s hand-held for ease of usage and movement. There are two operators, me and Diego [Romero Suarez-Llanos], we never use cuts so we just pass the camera between each other’s shoulders. The approach is the same for all my films. Not having any cuts is very important to me. Usually when I begin to shoot, I expect a performance to begin, and since I shoot a lot of faces – especially in this film, where there are a lot of close-ups – it’s important to have an uninterrupted shot.
I never review the footage, not one single shot. That would inevitably affect me and I would start building a story in my mind, and I don’t want that, because then I would start to try to manipulate the organic flow that was in front of me, to fictionalize it, and all that. I give everything to my [Belgian] editor, Marie-Helene Dozo, who is a very good friend, I worked with her on all my films throughout my career. She works alone for some months, editing without any sort of guidance from me. She builds her own stories, and since she watches the footage before I do, she sort of can do whatever kind of outline she wants to, sequences in the timeline. Then we get together, for three to five months, and she stays at my house in Houston while we work. We don’t use studios to have a convivial approach.
Film Comment: There is an interesting tendency in your body of films – you started out with fiction films, which are of course inspired by Neo-realistic, Bazinian values, such as nonprofessional actors who are tied to the locations where the films are shot. And as time goes by, you shake off the fictional and achieve a pure documentary form. Usually it goes the other way around, with many filmmakers.
In the beginning, I didn’t set off to emulate a style – not even the Neo-realists, even though I admire them, I would rather say I come from an experimental background. I was working on screenplays and, on the road, I met people and I was drawn to them, and I felt that their stories were way better than what I had written. So I just started fearfully ditching parts of the script and letting their stories come in instead. That progressed from one project to another, I gained experience until I got courage and, for my third film [Stop the Pounding Heart, 2013], I didn’t write anything. And I went through that and it was hell. It was awful. I cried every other day because I thought I didn’t know how to do anything, or how to finish it. It was like a tantrum, but then after these crises I understood that I’m onto something.”
Minervini: 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.
Jordan Cronk: 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?
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. (...) 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. It’s no coincidence the last three films have been shot digitally.
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.
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.
“What really worries me is the surge of a new wave of philistine cinema, which is producing covert-yet-not-so-subtle nationalistic, reactionary work, sugar-coated with the recipe of mainstream productions. There are several examples of this filmic trend – even in the arthouse world – but I am an active filmmaker and cannot afford to make too many enemies in this business. Hence, I am only going to mention one exemplifying case: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015). On the surface, it appears to be just another film about the dirty war on the Mexican narcos led by the US. (...) What I found most disconcerting is the image of Mexico that the film delivers. Ciudad Juárez is portrayed as a city in civil war, where bombs explode and gunshots are heard nonstop throughout the day, and where countless decapitated corpses decorate the city streets: a place where even the FBI, the CIA, and the Army are afraid to go. While watching the film, I remember wondering if Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators had mistaken Ciudad Juárez for Fallujah, and Mexico for Iraq (though I must say that many Mexican filmmakers have not been any less beholden to the marketability of the immigration issue and the extreme violence in their own country, which is even more morally reprehensible). Trump employed similar tactics of generalizations and stereotypes when he claimed inner-city crime had reached record levels and compared the violence in Chicago to a war-torn country. (On the contrary, violent crime has been on a steady decline since the ’90s and reached its lowest point in decades in 2014.) As for the point Sicario was trying to make, some of my crew members live in Ciudad Juárez, which is now safer than many cities in the US, including New Orleans where I am working now [on What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?], and I can assure you that they enjoy a pretty normal life, not one of constant danger. What is actually dangerous is this boorish anti-Mexico, pro-US propaganda. And given the times in which we live, with such a beastly insurgence of anti-immigration movements in the US, to make a film of such reactionary vigour is to be either a careless entertainer or a ruthless fascist. Granted, I do not know anything about Denis Villeneuve, except that he is Canadian. Hence, he should be tried in his own country and by his own citizens for his moral and political crimes – and the same goes for the unnamed Mexican filmmakers. But to his American screenwriter and producers I say: ‘Shame on you. You deserve Donald Trump.’”
- 1. Mark Peranson, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? – Wavelengths,” Cinema Scope, September 7, 2018.
- 2. Roberto Minervini, “We Walk All This Together: An Interview with Roberto Minervini,” MUBI Notebook, January 28, 2019.
- 3. Roberto Minervini in conversation with Eric Hynes, “Interview: Roberto Minervini,” Film Comment, August 15, 2019.
- 4. Roberto Minervini in conversation with Jordan Cronk, “The Land of the Unknown: Roberto Minervini on What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” Cinema Scope 77 (2019), 6-11.
- 5. Roberto Minervini, “From the Other Side: Exiled in Trumpland,” Cinema Scope 69 (2017), 6-9.