Roberto Minervini, an Italian-born Texas-based documentarian, former punk band singer and IT technician, is known for spending months or years building connections and trust within communities as he films their lives.
Shooting handheld himself, filming without cutting until data cards are full and he can no longer hold up his Arri Amira camera, Minervini is seemingly obsessed with what he calls his responsibility to create “a sacred space…for them to be who they are. That’s who I am as a filmmaker.”
His controversial 2015 film “The Other Side” chronicles the lives of “people on the outs, poor, dealers, criminals, then the militias.” The young white males that populate the back roads of Louisiana and Texas are in a place Minervini relates to, he told Ji.hlava docu film fest director Marek Hovorka in a masterclass at the 24th edition of the Czech Republic’s leading non-fiction film event.
“The feeling of abandonment, the fear of losing it all, not making it, protecting the family…and then enormous cultural differences.”
The violence of the American Southerners who spend their welfare checks on high-powered weapons in preparation for what they believe is the imminent collapse of civilization, says Minervini, are motivated by anger and fear.
And their aggression “was right in front of me,” he recalled, from the moment he began filming in 2014. In one scene, which follows his subjects drinking, drilling, shooting and at one point blowing up a car in which an effigy of Barack Obama sits, Minervini recalled the local police rolled up, at first concerned, then looking on approvingly.
“The Other Side” seemingly predicts the rise of so-called Alt-Right groups who took to the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina and other high-profile locales, emboldened by Donald Trump’s rise.
Minervini bristles at film critics who were uncomfortable with his humanizing of white supremacists, he said, recalling an audience at Cannes who cheered the film heartily – right up until one of the subjects of his film who was present in the cinema came up to him and hugged him.
His next doc, 2018’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?” embedded him in the world of a struggling music bar in the Black community of New Orleans as a re-emergent Black Panther party gained strength in the face of attacks by white supremacists.
“White America cannot grasp the true meaning of Black music,” Minervini said. “Hip Hop continues to evolve and change – it makes a fool out of us white people.”
But the subjects he found in New Orleans, he said, “wanted to speak, not to sing their anger through music any more – through blues.”
Minervini met Judy Hill, the daughter of a famous musician from the 50s, Jesse Hill, in her bar, then spent “a year and a half hanging out there” before realizing he had a group of people to work with.
In “Low Tide,” a 2012 film that blurs the line between doc and narrative, Minervini captured the adolescence of a young boy whose name we never learn who grows up, like so many of his subjects, in the rural South, amid hard-drinking, sometimes-violent natives who struggle to keep jobs and self-esteem.
The director’s childhood in a part of southern Italy where working-class, macho men fight to hold on to their sense of self-respect and often chafe at the rules of polite society helped him relate, he said.
“The physical language of being strong’ for a man,” he said, “is something I also struggle with.”
Another way he tries to get at deeper honesty is through nudity, Minervini said. “Nudity and the physical prowess – it’s a challenge to taboos. It also feeds into the desire of humans.”
These depictions are a form of resistance to what he sees as an “almost Victorian mindset…that it’s ugly.”
Filming tough subjects undressed also “disarms a lot of people,” he said. “It was a challenge. It says a lot about how strong you are.”
No matter the politics of his subjects, Minervini added, he sees his role as providing a “safe space” while filming so that “people can be who they are without consequences.”