Find the Pounding Heart:
An Interview with Roberto Minervini
by Flavia Dima

Roberto Minervini's voice is unique in contemporary American cinema. Hailing from Italy and holding a degree in economics, Minervini initially moved to New York in the early 2000s to pursue a career in IT, before his interests shifted to filmmaking. His cinema, which began with realist fiction before evolving into documentary, is one of radical closeness, both in form and in spirit; he follow disenfranchised people living in the Deep South of the United States, charting out their lives in their most intimate details against the social backdrop of a region that is systemically failing them in one form or another.

His latest, most politically uncompromising feature, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?, premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and opens now in the U.S. Set against the backdrop of New Orleans in the aftermath of a series of brutal police killings targeting young men of color, What You Gonna Do… is an acute portrayal of the struggles facing the black community in the Trump-era South. Shot in black-and-white, the documentary follows the lives of several people in New Orleans, including Judy, a charismatic barkeep who doubles as a Mardi Gras queen; young brothers Titus and Ronaldo; and members of the local chapter of the New Black Panthers. The resulting image is of a community beset by systemic racism and inequality at all ages, trying to fight back against economic, cultural, and societal oppression.

Reverse Shot: You’ve said that recent events such as police shootings and the general climate of fear in the United States inspired What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? How did you decide on this particular story and how did you find the characters?

Roberto Minervini: I went to New Orleans first, which is just a five-hour drive from Houston, Texas, which is where I live. I was searching for people to talk to, really; that’s the starting point. It’s the way that I approach new projects: I start meeting people, and then those people lead me to others, into their world, opening the door to other communities. And that’s exactly what happened with this film. It took me a few months until I found Judy’s bar, and I started hanging out there until I met her. She was the catalyst, the one who introduced me to all the others.

I thought that this was the right moment to do a film on Americans of color, and it was very difficult to build trust. It’s something that is established at a human level and it transcends everything else, even issues related to politics, race, class. For me, to confront myself as a white European with the reality that I was witnessing, there was a constant rebound effect, a regurgitation of my own condition and beliefs, of my stereotypes about Black America that were crushed.

RS: What was the process of shooting for this project? From what I understand, you operated the camera from time to time.

RM: I always use one camera, one lens, and it’s handheld for ease of usage and movement. There are two operators, me and Diego. 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.

RS: How did the process of challenging your own beliefs and prejudices you mentioned impact the production?

RM: In the editing phase, 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. I have to be very careful and aware of the fact that I am there, that I am very dangerous, that I could ruin everything. So the more I sabotage myself, the better it is for the film. I give everything to the editor, Marie-Hélène Dozo, who I have worked with on all my films. She works alone for months, editing without any guidance from me, and since she watches the footage before I do, she can do whatever kind of outline she wants. Then we get together, for three to five months, and she stays at my house in Houston while we work.

The film holds a mirror to many prejudices and preconceived notions, opinions about the people we see. So, while editing it, we tried to fight that. It’s a very deep and cathartic conversation that we had about these issues. But this is not about avoiding prejudice; there is no way of escaping myself. It’s about presenting a work that is the product of a collaboration with the characters and my own learning process about people, places, their issues, and lives. It’s a middle-of-the-road picture presented by a white guy who is learning about the struggle of black America.

RS: What You Gonna Do… is certainly your most overtly political film. However, all of your films are set in the South. What attracts you to these spaces, to stories of people who live in these areas?

RM: The first four films are tied to each other, linked, even in the sense of community ties—because there are real-life links between the characters. This one [What You Gonna Do…] is a complete departure from my comfort zone, which is people in places that I’m already familiar with. I wanted to make a leap, relocate into a context with no safety net, run away from my sofa and my house and the feeling of familiarity. I needed all of this to dissolve and to feel vulnerable, scared, a heightened sense of presence, to always stay uncomfortable. If I get comfortable, I feel confident and then I’m no longer that attentive.

RS: In your films, especially in the preceding films, there are intimate portraits of people who are generally marginalized in society and often caricatured: ex-convicts, drug users, ultra-religious people. You give them dimension. Is this conscious in your approach?

RM: I don’t want to sound pedantic, but maybe we need to be careful and rephrase the labels that we use to talk about people, like “minority” or “underbelly.” Hollywood is so capable of making films about the true statistic minority, which is the 1%, the wealthy, and to normalize that image. So, when you’re stereotyping “the underbelly,” you’re talking about 40 million people. The magnitude of those who are disenfranchised, of those who struggle, is so big that I feel it’s my duty to go and shed some light on it, since, as a filmgoer, I don’t see a lot of this stuff. I want to contribute.

I come from a blue-collar background, and I like to get in touch with people whose knowledge is generally empirical. The course of this job, which pushes you to be intellectually performative, tires me; it's conscious work that is not one bit spontaneous. To finally just be with people and relate at a different level, and learn from them on top of it, is really what I want. Which is a beautiful thing—they learned it on their own and didn’t read it anywhere. There is something very primordial in it. I know it sounds a little romantic, but it’s true. That’s sanity to me.

RS: There is a sensation of closeness that permeates your body of work—which you achieve by visual means, by always being very close to the characters, but also by portraying very intimate moments in your characters’ lives. How do you gain this close access?

RM: I take things step by step, but I never really plan on something else, like being distant. I’d rather see a project or a particular relationship die out than step back and change the way I want to work. The people engaged with me and my closeness, and they felt nurtured, protected—and I felt the same way. My last four or five films are sustained invisibly by stories that are not featured, because they were failures. I wasn’t able to sustain that closeness, that intimacy, or they didn’t want to have me there anymore. But for me it has never really been an option, an alternative strategy or aesthetics. I couldn’t function in a film otherwise. Even as a human being, I wouldn’t be able to function without being very open and close.

That’s pretty much why I do it—how, I don’t know. There’s no secret to it—except that I truly believe in what I am saying, and I care. The films are a testament to what I do and how I do it.

RS: You started out making fiction films that seem inspired by neorealism, but now you’re making documentaries. With many filmmakers, that path is reversed.

RM: It wasn’t conscious. Whatever I do is in the context of an art form, a context of expression. And as an artist, I want to choose new forms of expressing, communicating stories, new aesthetics and approaches. In the beginning, I didn’t set off to emulate a style—not even the neorealists. I was working on screenplays and, on the road, I met people and 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 and, for my third film [Stop the Pounding Heart, 2013] I didn’t write anything. And I went through that and it was hell. 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 was onto something.

Now I’m already thinking about how to continue, because after this film I want to explore new forms of telling similar stories. I don’t know where this will lead me. If I make fiction then, boom, will people be like “What happened to the great documentarian?” I’m terrified of fiction, I’m sweating while I’m saying this—so maybe it’s time for me to do it.