Known for his portraits of marginalized communities in the American South, documentarian Roberto Minervini captured “moments of deep realism” with his latest film, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, that resonate on both political and human levels.
Premiering at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, where it won three prizes—including the Fair Play Cinema Award, the UNICEF Award, and the Premio Vivere da Sportivi Award—What You Gonna Do? was shot in Louisiana during the summer of 2017, after a series of brutal killings of black men sent shockwaves through the United States. Meditating on the state of race relations in America, the elegantly shot black-and-white doc is a visceral, intimate portrait of those fighting for justice, dignity and survival every day.
Sitting down at The Landmark Theatre last night for a panel discussion on the film—one of 10 selected for Deadline’s For The Love of Docs screenings series—the Texas-based director vividly recalls a sentiment he felt in the South, around the time in 2016 when both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by the police. “I remember in the South where I live, at least in Texas, that you could feel the resurgence of [a] sentiment, which is the fear of black people. I remember Donald Trump campaigning and talking not so much about the wall and immigration, but more about how dangerous downtowns were, black downtown. So, all of that [is] the genesis of the project,” said the director, who tackled the resurgence of right-wing extremism with his prior feature, The Other Side. “Long story short, I decided perhaps this is the time to hop in the car, go to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and start working on this film.”
Dissecting American race relations on a political level, he explained, Minervini is interested in grassroots campaigns—“the fact that there’s communities that have no voice or representation in mainstream politics and the political discourse.” As a director, he added, the goal has been to “put [his] humble, small spotlight on communities that are barely represented in the political scenario in America.”
But to Minervini, the political resonance of What You Gonna Do? is only part of what gives the doc its power, given the personal connections he forged with the people whose stories he was telling. “I connect with outsiders, I connect with self-made people, I connect with people who have been struggling to make ends meet. I left Italy just because of that. Because I couldn’t make ends meet, I had to migrate and leave, although I am very well aware of the fact that I’m a white European, and that means I have automatically a golden ticket. It’s not so difficult for me to go to another country and find a job,” the director reflected. “Having said that, I have struggled, so there’s something very human that I empathize [with], and I like to connect with people who have gone through experiences—and I’m interested in those experiences, and bits of resilience, of resistence. I’m very interested in that.”
For more from our conversation with the director of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, click on the video above.