Shooting in the Ghetto, Spotlighting Marginalized Voices, and Countering Stereotypes
The documentaries of Roberto Minervini, who was born in Italy but now lives in Houston, Texas, offer a different view of America’s South than filmmakers usually show. They resemble a much darker version of Les Blank’s portraits of Cajun life. He began his career with a trilogy of films about Texas: the third one, Stop the Pounding Heart, really brought him to cinephiles’ attention. It depicted a Christian fundamentalist teenage girl falling in love with a boy outside her faith. Minervini’s latest film, The Other Side, travels to Louisiana for a disturbing look at a subculture of heroin, meth and militias. For its first hour, it follows a junkie couple, Mark and Lisa. Mark [pictured at top of page] is on the run from a warrant that could land him in jail. Then, it focuses on a militia whose leader alternately offers intelligent political critiques and paranoia in the style of radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones while firing machine guns at Obama effigies. Minervini always works with a small crew, attempting to capture moments of truth and beauty amidst grungy surroundings. With The Other Side, he’s succeeded. StudioDaily talked to him the day after its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last month.
SD: How did your interest in America’s South develop?
Roberto Minervini: I ended up in the South for family reasons, without a specific interest in the region. I think what came first was wanting to belong. Being an immigrant, traveling and changing places for the past 25 years has always left me longing for human connection. The South is no exception. That’s what I did. After belonging to certain clusters of Southern society, that’s when I really got interested in it and thought I could tell stories of it.
SD: Do you think all the films you make will take place there?
Minervini: For now, that’s my intention. My new project is set there. In order to make films, I need to feel a connection. For nine years, I’ve been living in Houston.
SD: How do you gain the trust of your subjects, especially when you film them doing illegal activities?
Minervini: Being part of a group is key to gaining trust, for me. All my films are connected by family. Even in this one, although it’s set in Northern Louisiana, the drug addicts are connected by blood to the people we see in my earlier films. Without that, I could never access them. The illegal activity is a product of the fact that the police had given me free rein to work. Where they live is a ghetto that the police have no interest in going to. They told me that, explicitly. There’s no money transaction between me and my subjects. The bottom line is that, from their standpoint, they wanted me to share an insubordination and sense of swimming against the waves. It actually never crossed my mind while I was filming that illegal activity could create some issues later.
SD: I was surprised at how freely Mark is able to get around, despite the fact that he’s supposedly wanted by the police.
Minervini: It’s pretty incredible. But I talked to the chief of police several times, and he told me the point of having a ghetto like that is that it’s almost self-regulated. There is a Darwinist natural selection to it. That’s the only area in West Monroe where people can get a lease without signing a contract. They’re all registered felons. They can’t own guns legally. The police know they’re doing drugs and think they’ll die of addiction. So that takes care of itself, which is really one of the principles of a ghetto. Life takes care of them, so the police have no interest in them. The warrant Mark has is for child support, so it’s a stretch that he would get in trouble for it. As it happens, they freely left the state and spent a year in Virginia with no problems whatsoever.
SD: How much footage did you shoot?
Minervini: Since I shoot digitally, the memory card allows for a 28-minute unedited take. When the card is full, I replace it. So I shot 150 hours of uninterrupted footage. I had plenty of material. I never repeated a take. I worked on this project for about a year.
SD: There’s a writing credit on the film. Does writing bring in an element of fictionalization?
Minervini: Traditional writing never takes place. I like to credit myself and other people as writers because we do conceptualize the story, after the fact. I structure the film. I gather more from the fiction tradition of film language. The transition scenes that work as connective tissue are reenactments, like the silent scenes of people walking or in cars. All those moments of observation are somewhat fictional. There’s no conceptualization of the big moments that are shown.
SD: But you never wrote dialogue or told people what to say?
Minervini: No. It’s never been a skill of mine, especially being a foreigner. That’s why I shoot very long takes, because I allow people to express themselves and wait for moments of magic where dialogue reaches perfection. The talent ordinary people have in life is well beyond scripted dialogue.
SD: I found it interesting how the militia leader would say something that was really cogent politically, like about how the U.S. tries to change the culture of Middle Eastern countries and fails, and then say something ridiculous about the United Nations invading and confiscating Americans’ guns. Did you get into political discussions with him?
Minervini: A little bit. It’s mostly them talking with themselves. Their views are scattered and experiential. That’s because they’re very young and went to war. They learned on the fly what it means to go to war and become an outcast. Sometimes they gathered information in a scattered way. All their ideology is based on experience. The dissonance is based on the fact that they learned what U.S. foreign policy is about so young. That’s how they express those experiences.
SD: Do you find it ironic that your films are most likely to be seen by people who don’t share the values of the people you’re filming?
Minervini: In a way, you could say that. It is the nature of things. I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a media and art person. We talk about that with the subjects. Wherever we film, we review it together and talk about the impact this imagery could have on different audiences. It’s very important for them to be taken seriously by people they would never be in contact with. They’re definitely bypassed by the intelligentsia. That’s one of the reasons why, for them and for me, it’s important to put a spotlight on them.
SD: I noticed that the film is produced by French and Italian TV. I was cringing when I saw that, because I can see it playing into European stereotypes about Americans and guns.
Minervini: That’s always a possibility. But in order to overcome stereotypes, we need to trigger a debate about them. I have two choices: to avoid showing material that triggers a stereotypical assumption about America or to go towards it. I choose the latter. Let’s talk about stereotypes. They come from ignorance. The only way to overcome it is to give people some knowledge about America. There’s a lot of knowledge about America, the powerful country with successful people. Europeans have vicious social issues, probably worse than America. So perhaps it does America a favor. People tell me my films show that America deals with issues that Europe has been dealing with forever. It’s not just about the “American Dream.” They’re glad to see that.
SD: How big of a crew did you work with?
Minervini: A total of six. Four on set, if you can call it that. Me, a director of photography, a focus puller, and a sound recordist. Since we shoot long takes with one handheld camera, we passed the camera around. It was very flexible. The cameraman role was interchangeable.
SD: Did the story become apparent while you were shooting, or only in the edit?
Minervini: Some of it became apparent in the shoot. I was only working with Mark and Lisa in the first part. I knew a lot of people who belonged to the militia, but I didn’t think I could connect the two realities together. Then, when Mark and Lisa’s intention to become less self-destructive and own weapons legally came out, I thought I could bring them together. The militia wants to be a threat.
SD: I found it really sad that Mark thinks his only way of getting clean is to go to jail. Did you talk to him about that?
Minervini: I was the only one who knew that he wanted to talk to Lisa about his intention to go to jail and try to save his life. By the way, after that confession, we stopped the shoot. I just did a work about a month ago, commissioned by the University of Houston, with a social worker who works with ex-cons. They all have been in jail at least 20 years. All of them said they felt safe in jail, with someone to take care of them. Pretty much all of them said hopelessness kicked in when they were released. They didn’t know what to do, and they thought they would fall back in crime. They start to think they deserve their fate. Getting clean in jail is hard, but you get food and accommodation. It’s a disturbing reality, but it’s true.
SD: How are Mark and Lisa doing now?
Minervini : I know that after Mark’s mother died, two months after we wrapped the shoot, they went to Virginia to stay with one of Lisa’s sons. So instead of going to jail, they chose to go to Virginia. I lost contact, because they were there for almost two years. The only reason I know they came back to West Monroe is that I know of them through other people. Apparently, they’re doing fine now. I don’t know if they’re on drugs or have other issues.
SD: What project are you planning now?
Minervini: I’m thinking of ways to tell a story of the early folk/bluesmen of the 30s, black musicians of Louisiana and Texas. This is pre-Mississippi Delta blues. They were recorded by the Library of Congress. Those who were first discovered and brought to the Northeast were adopted by the music industry, which was dominated by white people, and then blues and jazz became white people’s music. I want to tell the story with musicians of today. Again, I’m blending documentary with a language closer to fiction. I’m talking about the big racial divide in America, another social issue.
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