Voices from a Fire
by Laura D’Angeli
What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire
Roberto Minervini, 2018
Folk songs, white plumages, and shining pearls, highlighted by the contrast of the black and white: a Mardi Gras wild celebration opens What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, the latest film by the Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini. We are immediately pushed into a tribal world, where orders are subverted, and where ancestral fears mix with the cathartic experience of the Carnival fest, anticipating the brutality and the cruelty of a place where racism and violence are still burning issues.
Minervini takes us inside the black community of Baton Rouge, right in its most urgent moments around July 2016, after a series of shootings between gangs, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and fightings with the police. It is a completely overturned world, where the personal stories become part of the bigger, whole history of humanity, of those who subjugate and those who are subjugated.
Following the same process of his previous works, in particular of The Other Side (2015), Minervini enters this community and gives it a space to speak, letting the outside hear the stories of those whose voices are seldom heard. The story of Judy, for example, who’s struggling to keep her bar open and to face her past of sexual abuses and drug addiction. Or the story of the two brothers, Ronaldo and Titus, trying to live the present without the fear for the future. Or, again, the story of the small unit of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defence, which is trying to raise its voice and bring justice even in those places where it seems that inequity will always prevail.
Within the struggle of these people, Minervini leaves a space for a confrontation, in which he himself gets involved in the first place, as a person, before a filmmaker. Indeed, he constantly tests himself by living and immersing himself in such environments before filming them, and experiences the risks linked to the violence and the brutality of these places. What Minervini does is not simple, it requires an engagement that goes beyond the act of filming, that involves challenging himself as a human being, who witnesses these people’s struggles and finds it hard to give a reason for these injustices.
It is neither easy nor painless, yet it seems like the only possible way to achieve a result as his films do. In fact, the peculiarity of Minervini’s filming style stands in the ability to get so close to people’s faces to be able to read their feelings and their thoughts through the camera, and yet maintaining a certain observational distance. The same distance that allows the characters to speak for themselves, without any interventions or judgemental barriers.
Minervini’s camera closely follows the characters and still is able to let us forget that someone is always filming. Its constant presence is somehow cancelled by his capacity to both disappear and to get as close as possible, showing the most intimate and private moments. Even if the scenes that feature the Black Panthers seem to be much more detached than Judy’s or the brothers’ scenes, the movements of the camera – always looking for close-ups of faces – make clear that beyond the fights and the slogans there are people struggling to live a life free from inequity, violence and oppression.
There is a trust that Minervini constantly builds amongst these communities, which reassures them that their stories are worth telling. Only by building this trust and bearing a sense of responsibility towards them, can Minervini convey a portrait that truthfully narrates their stories as an oppressed minority within the white, powerful, and rich American society.
In this sense, it is striking what Judy says about the inherent fear that seems to inhabit black people’s DNA since the time of slavery. This sense of fear permeates the whole film and the stories of all the characters we encounter: of Judy, of the Black Panthers, but, most powerfully, of Ronaldo and Titus. Indeed, whereas Ronaldo, the elder, pretends to be tough and strong in front of his little, scared brother, many glimpses throughout the film show us his weaknesses, his fragility, and his fear of living in a place where you have already been condemned since the moment you are born, locked into a loop of violence and history repeating itself.
That is also why the black and white choice seems to perfectly match the film’s narrative. It indeed places the film in an atemporal dimension, where the history of the past mixes and affects the stories of the present. The black and white gives the film a sense of distance from the contemporaneity, abstracts and unties the narrative from any chronological and spatial extent, making it clear that what happens here and now could have happened, happens and probably will happen in any space and at any time of history. In this sense, the opening and closing scenes, both showing the celebration of the Mardi Gras in the community, also reflect a conception of time which is circular: history repeats itself, and the wounds that black people had to face are still open and bleeding.
In fact, what we hear throughout the film is a cry for help coming from these people. Minervini’s work is a choral film with a multiplicity of voices that are trying to answer the very same question that the tile imposes: “What you gonna do when the world’s on fire?”. In a world where the rescue does not come when a community and its people are in danger, then one has to find the answer on his own, whether it is to fight against or to run away.