Danny Peary Talks to ‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?’ Director Roberto Minervini

Ronaldo and his younger half-brother Titus from What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Ronaldo and his younger half-brother Titus

I was delighted (and relieved!) that What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? got a splendid “Critic’s Pick” review in the New York Times last Friday, because I want Roberto Minervini’s fifth documentary feature to get as much support as possible, so that it finds the huge audience it deserves. It’s an important film that should be seen by everybody.

This vivid depiction of the lives of struggling, disenfranchised African-Americans in New Orleans (with detours to Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi)—as told (to other members of the community) with power, candidness, urgency, and clarity by his amazing array of resilient all-African-American subjects—takes on numerous, hot-button topics that should be front and center in the upcoming election: black-on-black gun violence, police brutality, the active KKK, addiction, abuse, gentrification, reparations, and the deliberate attempt to deprive black kids of a quality education so that they drop out and end up in prison. Significantly, the talk doesn’t diminish the tenderness, humanity, and caring present in front of and behind the camera. Minervini got access that few, if any, filmmaker could have, so won’t see anything else out there remotely like it.

You’re in luck because you can catch this unique, black-and-white film, which won several awards when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival, in Manhattan at Film at Lincoln Center/Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at 144 West 65th Street, where it opened last Friday and is being held over, or the Maysles Documentary Center at 343 Malcolm X. Boulevard, where it opens this Friday. This is the first time it has played in the city since the New York Film Festival.

The iconoclastic director, who was born in Italy but came to America in 2000 and became a filmmaker after moving to Texas years later, has said he makes “works of rigorous observation” that transcend documentary. Beginning with his “Texas Trilogy”—The Passage (2011), Low Tide (2012), Stop the Pounding Heart 2013)—he has chosen to make non-scripted films with non-actors that he has gotten to know well. He turns his camera on them, moves closer, and doesn’t turn it off until he has captured something that is startling to us and occasionally surprises even him. You ask yourself: How did he get that on film?

For What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Minervini follows three subjects: one-time addict Judy Hill, who is in danger of losing her New Orleans bar, the Ooh Oop Pah Doo, to gentrification; Krystal Muhammad, chairwoman of a contingent of New Black Panthers, who leads her group to Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi, to investigate the murders of three young blacks and protest the inaction of the police to bring the perpetrators (policemen, the KKK) to justice; and, also in New Orleans, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and his idolizing younger half-brother Titus, who spend the days like all adventurous young boys in the hot summer but must follow their worried mother’s orders to come home before dark lest they are shot.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire poster

Ben Kenigsberg of the Times was correct in seeing this film as a companion piece to Minervini’s unnerving previous film. Indeed it is the other side of The Other Side (2015). This time, Minervini shares the values and socio-political consciousness of his African American subjects, and, thus, didn’t risk a breakdown from having to hold his tongue and keep his camera running while his racist white subjects did their thing. In the new film, Minervini follows an ex-addict, Judy, and the leftist Black Panthers; in the earlier film, he followed addict Mark (showing him at his most private and dangerous moments) and a right-wing paramilitary group that is expecting martial law and gets pleasure in firing at and torching a car with a mask of Obama staring out the back window.

Their similarity: Characters in both films feel they are being neglected and screwed over by the federal government. Minervini makes sure not to reveal his political leanings in either film, but in both cases, it’s evident that he agrees with them about this.

Watch the teaser trailer:

I truly enjoyed having the following conversation with the very personable and passionate Robert Minervini last week at the Good Stuff Diner in Manhattan.

Danny Peary: In an interview I saw online, you were asked who influenced you most as a filmmaker. Since you’re Italian, I was sure you were going to say the post-World War II neorealists—De Sica, Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti. But you instead mentioned the Japanese Pink films of the sixties and subversive filmmakers in Brazil and the Philippines! Your films are gritty and naturalistic, but the neorealists didn’t impact you at all?

Roberto Minervini: Obviously the poetics, the language, the way they made films inevitably touched my heart. They affected me even more politically. Their films were acts of militancy and insubordination and that has all stayed with me. But when I think of the filmmakers who have had the strongest impact on me, it’s those who have worked more recently than the neorealists, under the difficult conditions of political repression. Particulary Ozualdo Candeias in Brazil, Masao Adachi in Japan, and Lino Brocka in the Philippines. They are examples of a less ideological, grass roots militancy, filmmakers who had no money and risked going to jail. I have had many influences, but they are the ones who have inspired me the most.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire director Roberto Minervini
Roberto Minervini, Photo: Danny Peary

DP: Were their films available to you in Italy?

RM: I don’t remember how I first saw them, but it was on VHS. I do remember that I got hold of them later at the uptown Kim’s Video, after I moved to New York in October 2000. My new job as a managing consultant wasn’t starting until January, so I spent my time following the Gore-Bush election and renting movies. I had been living in Madrid but came to New York with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, because she was studying here.

DP: Was that a difficult transition?

RM: Coming to the United States required a lot of personal growth for me. It was really a spiritual opening to come here and accept everything we had been told about the United States.

DP: When you arrived here, did you consider yourself a filmmaker?

RM: No. I had done some acting in my parents’ amateur theater, but I had an office job and never studied film. I did however study privately at night with a Ukranian filmmaker in Rome. I held a camera for the first time. I had a Super 8. Also I started shooting stop-motion animation with some people I knew. Who knows what I did with those cartridges? But I never thought of being a filmmaker until I lived in America. I bought a camera when we lived in New York.

DP: How did you end up in Texas?

RM: My wife grew up in Texas and her mother was there. I was teaching film in the Philippines for two years when her mother got sick and we moved to Texas. We have lived in Houston for thirteen years.

DP: You said in another interview, “All my life I have struggled with my being different.” Beginning with your “Texas Trilogy” to the first films you didn’t have to finance yourself, The Other Side and now What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire, you have made films about people on the fringes, forgotten people, and my guess is that you can relate to them from your own past.

RM: Yeah. Being different in Italy had to do with class and socio-economic conditions. I come from a blue collar background. But I didn’t go to work at fourteen like everybody else and make money. I went to school and had no money. I struggled with that.

DP: You go on to say that you see in your subject the conflicts in yourself. I think, particularly when making The Other Side, that you’re trying to exorcise some demons. You have at times tortured yourself emotionally.

RM: I am from a family with parents who didn’t get along and detested their life together and wanted to divorce. My brother and I struggled with that a lot. I kind of ran away from my family and Italy. I struggle with that today—as you say that’s a “demon” I have—and one of the themes of my movies is kinship and there is an undertone of fear, which definitely comes from me. There’s a lot of fear, including the fear of abandonment and the fear that I don’t matter, that pushes me to do what I do. I try to relate to the people I film who are trying really hard to stay afloat—I feed off their energy a lot and am empowered by them.

Even the para-military men in The Other Side, who are so dangerous because they want to shield their beloved from something as absurd as the martial law they’re expecting to come. I long for for someone to shield me. I long their strength and to shoot like they do. Definitely there is something very cathartic and a selfish aspect to why I placed myself with them. I’m aware I’m a needy filmmaker. Maybe I relate to my subjects through my need for love.

DP: Your subjects trust you and you care about them. You both appreciate the interest in each other. You give each other validation.

RM: That absolutely makes sense. We validate each other. And we support each other. It’s much less lonely, isolated, and fragile when I am with them. Making my films is for me an enriching, reassuring, and empowering experience, not in a political way but a human way.

DP: And also to keep you from feeling lonely and isolated, you have your wife with you on your shoots.

RM: My wife, Denise Ping Lee, is the producer on my films. She’s also my rock. She’s part of my support system, with my friends, because making these movies is so emotional.

DP: You have said, “I choose to depict realities that are open to interpretation rather than further my own ideology.”

RM: Yeah. It’s maybe a selfish aspect, because while it has something to do with integrity, it also has something to do with my personal growth—to be less judgmental, prejudicial, less of who I used to be. I am not a management consultant anymore and I do stuff that will outlive me and be out there for consumption and I feel a responsibility.

DP: It’s hard not to be judgmental. Your films aren’t judgmental so do you have to fight with yourself to make them that way?

RM: You’re right. I am judgmental, so I have to be careful. I’m not effortlessly nonjudgmental. I put a lot of effort to not interfere in my own films.

DP: You don’t want your political ideology to come out in your films, but are they still political? And do you want them to be political?

RM: I think so. I’m definitely comfortable making political films. They aren’t necessarily ideological.

DP: Do you actually fight against expressing your personal political ideology in your movies?

RM: In a way. I think you’re onto something. I do have a strong ideological background but make sure not to be moved to express my ideological position in my films.

DP: You have said somebody told you “not to bypass your reality,” and that has stuck with you. You don’t go outside your reality, but you do go outside your comfort zone.

RM: Absolutely. That’s when I need to hold open a space for the subjects to show who they are. I have to be at their service and be receptive. It’s very hard because I want to interfere and control everything. It’s hard for the ego to make films the way I do.

DP: I believe your last two films, The Other Side and What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, are about survival. The primary storyline of the first film is about a couple, Mark and Lisa, who puts their lives on the line every time they shoot up to get some temporary calmness into their lives. The second film is about blacks in the South who are well aware of how their lives are at risk every day from black-on-black gunfire, the KKK, and the police. It had to have been emotional for you in that you didn’t tell them to put away their needles or try to make things better for them, but instead just stuck around and filmed them.

RM: Talking about The Other Side, if I’m that close to the characters, it’s because I want to be. There’s a lure. I don’t want to reject anything. It’s not a moral decision but just a decision to be functional and balanced.

DP: Nothing is off limits?

RM: When I edit, there is. When I shoot, what’s off limits is usually their choice. Most often, they’re too uncomfortable having me film them when they’re feeling too emotional.

DP: You want your subjects to be in control of your films.

RM: Being so close and following the subjects subserviently, like a man’s best friend, I think is empowering. I welcome their performance because over an extended period of time, every truth surfaces—and that’s great.

DP: Talk about how you choose to be so close to your subjects when you shoot, even on top of them. Why don’t you ever film them from way above or at some angle from a distance? Is that your way of saying you are in it together with the people who trust you?

RM: My prerogative is to stay close to experience everything that’s going on very directly, even if it’s a confrontation with the police. When I’m told that’s not possible, I just don’t film. There are many examples of that. The reason I didn’t film the family of the murdered Jeremy Jackson in my new film is that I couldn’t stay close to them. For me, getting close is not really about capturing footage, it’s about experiencing something by being next to the subjects. My emotional response to what I witness affects the way I’m going to film it. The emotional response to the experience is what’s going to affect the editing. If I film from far away I’m not going to be carrying an emotional response when I edit, and I really rely on being emotionally invested.

DP: Do you ever say when editing, “I wonder how people are going to react to this footage.”?

RM: I do, but not in terms of approval and disapproval—because that’s not something I can control—but in regard to their judgment and prejudice toward the characters. There is a lot of footage that can be extremely compromising or misunderstood, so I don’t include it because it can be damaging to the characters and the film. I must have integrity about that.

DP: You never pander to an audience, particularly critics.

RM: No. I can’t really be concerned about how the film will be received or criticized. It’s not that I don’t know that everyone won’t like what I’m putting in my film, but it’s not the first thing that comes to my mind.

DP: Originally you wanted to make your new film about music. Is that how you came into contact with Judy Hill?

Judy Hill from What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Judy Hill

RM: Since my teenage years in Italy, I’ve been a fan of jazz. I learned about jazz and what it meant for people who became militant musicians. Then I went backwards and learned that the music written and performed by blacks in America was a tool to keep alive their oral tradition. That interested me and I was interested in how Leadbelly, who wrote songs in prison, tied pre-Mississippi Delta blues to African music. I learned about New Orleans music [which mixed various forms of jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll]. I knew there was a bar in New Orleans called Ooh Oop Pah Doo, which was named after the 1950s popular song by Jessie Hill, and that it was run by his daughter. So I wanted to meet her. We stayed in touch for a year and the film changed direction.

DP: I didn’t realize when watching the film that Judy Hill is the daughter of Jessie Hill. I wasn’t sure why she knew the exact day of his death. She sings Ooh Oop Pah Doo at her July 4 celebration in her bar, and she is terrific singer. It comes so late in the film that I was surprised she sings at all.

RM: When we travel abroad with this film, she gets to perform and she is fantastic.

DP: Did you know how politically astute she is?

RM: I knew that she is wise, and feisty, and is a fighter, but I didn’t know at the beginning that she was so politically astute. I found that a lot of people I met had a strong political consciousness.

DP: Your circular structure surely gave you a lot of freedom when it came to editing your film. Did you want three stories?

Kevin carries on a Mardi Gras tradition in What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Kevin carries on a Mardi Gras tradition

RM: I wanted three stories that don’t converge. I didn’t know which stories would emerge. As I filmed, the three emerged and it became clear that they could coexist. I could have had a fourth story with Kevin, the Chief at the Mardi Gras.

DP: When did the New Black Panthers become one of your stories?

RM: It’s not in the film, but a lady in Judy’s bar talked about the Black Panthers’ legacy to others at a meeting there, giving examples from the sixties and seventies of unity and resistance, and recalling its Women, Infant, and Child nutritional program in Oakland. That’s what made me want to include the Panthers in the movie.

DP: You had to make a quick decision to include them because all these things in your movie, including the murders of young blacks that the Panthers were investigating, happened in 2017.

RM: Yes, it was a very quick decision to include them. I showed them some of my early footage on my laptop, including that meeting, and they agreed to be part of this project. I started working with them later on.

Krystal Muhammad leads the Panthers in protest in What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Krystal Muhammad leads the Panthers in protest

DP: In the first part of your movie, Judy and people in her bar during that meeting, and Krystal Muhammad and her fellow Panthers at a separate gathering, really open up to each other and make one bold and important statement after another, such as: “We were fucking doomed as black people”; “We’re still slaves”; “The law is not on our side”; “We wake up thinking every day may be our last”; “If we stuck together we could run this fucking world.” They talk about how blacks got along when Martin Luther King was alive, but that guns, like drugs, were suspiciously dumped into the hood so blacks could kill each other.

There is talk of reparations. And they point out that the great majority of blacks in prison are dropouts and how there is no effort by local, state, or federal government to provide blacks with a quality education so they won’t choose to drop out. These are things people should hear and think about and they are said one after another, pow pow pow, documented by you.

RM: They are brilliant people. There is a sense of responsibility, humility, camaraderie, and community. It translates into their daily life, which is absolutely incredible. The meeting at Judy’s bar came after someone was shot and the people gathered there to talk about it. I was just going to witness the meeting and listen. It was early on in my filming. It was all new.

DP: What you were able to capture was black people talking to black people, and saying things about their lives that they wouldn’t say to you directly or to other white people.

RM: There is a sense of community and these people stand up for each other. Everyone has a sense of collective identity, which is very important. Even the two boys, Ronaldo and Titus, sit on the couch and talk about race. They have an understanding of their situation and know about the past, and wish Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King were in the government now. Some people criticize the film for having a doomed outlook, but I don’t see the hopelessness they do. If some of my black subject about their own grim reality that doesn’t mean they are speaking for all blacks. There is certainly hope in that the new generation is aware of the past and is keeping the legacy alive.

Ronaldo and Titus King have fun in the day but worry about being shot at night in What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Ronaldo and Titus King have fun in the day but worry about being shot at night

DP: Your film does not have a doomed outlook. Among the most obvious examples are the resilient Judy telling people in her bar, “I have hope,” Krystal telling her followers “We have no option but to succeed,” and the Panthers getting over a setback by saying “We have a lot of work to do.” The boys are already thinking about how they can stay out of jail. Their mother Ashlei tells Ronaldo that getting education is the way to do it. He gives her excuses for why he’s not trying harder in school and she says something very powerful, “You’re falling into the trap.”

RM: Yeah, that’s very strong. They want black kids to fail. This isn’t petty populism, but I can only report what happened to Ronaldo without drawing conclusions or stereotyping anybody. After the film, Ashlei moved the family to a better neighborhood to keep her sons safe. Still Ronaldo got in with the wrong crowd and they tried to steal a car and he was incarcerated. He got out and went back to school and was on track, but he went out at night and was shot in the head and his hand. The hand was worse than the head.

When Ronaldo came to Venice for the film’s debut, he was a big, strong, handsome dude and I worry that will get him into trouble. I’d rather he were invisible. I bailed him out of jail and I was criticized, despite my good intentions, by the boys’ adult friend Kevin, for taking him out of a safe place and putting him back in an unsafe place. Now his mother has sent him to military school to get him off of the streets. I spoke to him recently and am going to see him on September 29. Titus misses his brother but so far he is going to school and has been safe. The hope is that his mother will shield him from anything bad happening.

DP: I think your last two films are very similar in structure, just opposite sides of the coin. In The Other Side, we fellow an addict, Mark, while in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, we follow a former addict, Judy. In both, they are trying to survive each day and make sure their elderly mothers are safe. In the first, you have an armed right-wing para-military group and in the second an armed leftist New Black Panthers. They both have beefs against the government.

The one difference is that your new film also has a storyline in which two young boys in New Orleans try to have fun each day while knowing it’s never safe at any age being an African American. The Other Side and What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? would be a great double feature. I’d think that your new film, even though sad things happen, took less of a toll on you to film because everyone’s politics were in tune with your own.

RM: It was easier and more difficult. This time, there would be no enmeshment or codependence with the people because I was inherently different. I wouldn’t be drowning into the film and be part of that world.

DP: I think it would be easier because in The Other Side, the paramilitary group you follow spouts things you certainly found offensive or ridiculous and even Mark, who is otherwise the sweetest guy in the world and is by no means unintelligent, makes one cringe each time he uses the “N-word.” In this film, Judy and Krystal, and every other African American in your film, say significant things you agree with.

RM: I wasn’t going to pretend to be the voice of black people, or lecture about racism. It would just be the outlook of someone who is and was allowed to be there with them. The difficulty was again feeling extremely vulnerable at times. The feeling of not belonging was scary. As a white person, I was in several contexts the one to fear, the enemy, the counterpart, the one who can’t be trusted. I was reminded of that. The Panthers told me that they liked me but we couldn’t really be friends until there were reparations to make amends for what happened to black people in their history.

DP: You knew your main subjects, but probably didn’t know everyone around them.

New Black Panthers march, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
New Black Panthers march

RM: I did have relationships with them, but we moved about and explored, including walking through neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi with the New Black Panthers. It was easier because I could keep my boundaries up, but, as I said, I felt extremely vulnerable and scared.

DP: Did other whites look at you strangely or angrily for hanging out with blacks? Including the white police in Baton Rouge and Jackson?

RM: I generally didn’t see white people hanging out other than at a couple of birthday parties at Judy’s bar. The white police were a different deal. It was terrifying. I was at the Baton Rouge police headquarters when they clashed with the Panthers. I arrived early in the morning, maybe four of five hours before the Panthers showed up. I parked my car, I identified myself to the police. So they knew why I was there. Perhaps there would be a protest because it was the first anniversary of the death of Alton Sterling, who had been shot at close range by police. They knew me and respected me as a media person.

Then the Panthers arrived and started protesting and there was a confrontation with police who wanted them to leave. I was holding the camera and I was in the middle of the protest, actually in front of the Panthers, and on the front line. I was very close to the police. Later the police did a press conference and pointed me out and I felt like a traitor, a pariah. That’s when I felt as a white guy I was in the wrong place. The rest of the media had been on the other side of a fence. We almost came to blows with members of the media who were really unhappy with our presence there and how we didn’t follow protocol. They resented that we were the only ones allowed to follow the Panthers.

DP: The black Southern policemen in your film, which deals with blacks being killed by police, made it clearer to me that blacks become neutral blue when they become policemen, and white policemen stay white.

RM: Being black is not enough to guarantee unity to fight for the same causes. Once you decide to join an institutional power, you’ve made a choice to choose power over race and class struggle. Many black policemen happen to be very brutal. The violence at the Baton Rouge protest started when a black policeman wrestled down one of the Panthers with a chokehold, completely unprovoked.

DP: When you were following the Panthers as they went door-to-door in Jackson to see if there was anybody with insight into Jeremy Jackson’s decapitation, a couple of the Panthers were standing guard in the street with assault rifles. Did that scare you?

A militant in the New Black Panthers, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire Black Panther
A militant in the New Black Panthers

RM: What scared me is that I saw a city truck nearby and I thought if they called the police there was going to be a shootout and we were all going to die. If the police saw armed Panthers in the street, they would wipe them out. That made nervous. Fortunately over several days, the police didn’t come.

DP: Did you ever reconsider being present at such times when you were in physical danger?

RM: Obviously when I go to places I go, I know I must take into account there is physical danger, but I don’t worry so much over what I can’t control. I don’t fear physical harm as much as fearing being rejected or scolded. Maybe that has to do with my upbringing. I am very sensitive to being mistrusted, so if my integrity is questioned I suffer a great deal. Anytime people suspect I’m not honest in my work, it takes a long time for me to recover.

DP: I actually thought that scene took place in Jackson because in your film the Panthers investigate the murder of Jeremy Jackson there in Jackson, where he had his head cut off, probably by the Klan, and there was no justice. My feeling is that you don’t actually care if we know exactly where things in your film take place, because for blacks it’s just as difficult all over.

RM: Judy and the two half-brothers, Ronaldo and Titus, and their mother Ashlei King, live in New Orleans, and the Panthers move around. In the Panthers, mostly you see people from Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana. The chapters go where they’re needed, case by case, and join forces.

DP: For a moment I thought Judy lived in Mississippi rather than New Orleans because she talks about Jeremy Jackson’s grizzly death.

RM: She was aware of what happened in Mississippi. We were at the state capitol building in Jackson, when the Panthers went there to protest the lack of a police investigation of the beheading. We filmed a lot in Jackson, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. We traveled with the Panthers without filming to even more places. We even went to New Jersey with them.

DP: Where did you stay in New Orleans?

RM: We rented an apartment at an apartment complex. It was mostly black, but mixed. We always rent apartments because everyone brings families or boyfriends and girlfriends. When we traveled with the Panthers, we usually stayed in hotels.

DP: In The Other Side, Mark’s fiancée Lisa tells him as they sit at a bar, “I wish I could take all of your pain away.” That is what I think you feel when making your films about subjects you care about.

RM: Thank you. I agree. I feel for these people. I try to be open and at service of people without patronizing them or being condescending. The stories in my films are the stories of people I care for.

DP: You had hundreds of hours of footage, yet you included that sweet moment. Did you realize when Lisa said it that it was such a meaningful and beautiful line, one that captures your own feelings?

RM: Unlike my collaborators—my cinematographer Diego Romero and my editor Marie-Hélène Dozo—I am American and can grasp the essence of a dialogue better than they can. On a scene like that, I don’t wear headphones, but my camera and mic are very close to them. I filmed what I saw without understanding what they were saying. I filmed them but couldn’t hear them. I just felt what was going on from watching them. Then when we edited that scene, I heard exactly what was said. So I relived that moment and it was amazing. But it was a dagger in my heart because by the time we edited, Mark’s mother had died and he had disappeared in grief. I’m just now having some contact with him. [I would be shocked to learn that Lisa died from an overdose.—DP]

DP: It’s interesting that you stay in touch with all of your subjects.

Judy Hill in her bar What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
Judy Hill in her bar

RM: Yes, in fact Judy is coming to New York for the premiere at Lincoln Center. I’m at the service of them and I don’t dictate any conditions. I didn’t make this movie so Judy can reopen her bar. If Judy has a desire, then I can help her out, but I’m not trying to patronize the situation.

DP: In a terrific scene, Judy talks to a younger woman who is experiencing a lot of what she experienced when younger—rape, drug addiction—were you surprised by what she reveals about herself and how emotional she gets?

RM: I knew everything about her story and she knew everything about mine. We laid all the cards on the table and bonded over that. We understood each other and felt safe with each other. We talked things over before that scene and I was knowledgeable of what she might say but didn’t tell her what to do or say. I wasn’t taken by surprise by what she said, but I was surprised by how incredibly emotional she was and how that came about so organically.

DP: Talk about the elderly mothers in both films. They reminded me of the elderly grandmother in Pather Panchali. Mark walks so lovingly with his mother; and Judy tenderly rubs her mother’s head and assures her that even if she loses her house, she won’t be out on the street.

RM: Those types of scenes are possible because I don’t cut and have lengthy shots. That’s why I shoot in digital. I want the camera to run a long time so I can capture such moments that show the essence of their relationships and their humanity. They touch each other to exorcise their fear and loneliness. It gives me goosebumps. That’s why I make sure to hug my kids—they feel safe when love is so tangible.

DP: While What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? continues its run at Film at Lincoln Center this Friday, it will open at the Maysles Documentary Center, where it should have a high percentage of African Americans in the audience.

RM: I’m proud of what I do, but I am nervous. I fear rejection.

DP: I believe that everyone there will admire this film and be grateful to you for putting what they think about in your film. I think it will be a rousing success—as it should be.

Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).


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