Roberto Minervini’s films demand one’s rapt attention with their stunning camera work and filmmaking style that rather seamlessly fuses fiction and documentary. The Italian-born director’s four features to date, The Passage (2011), Low Tide (2012), Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), and The Other Side (2015), all fuse documentary situations with fictional character studies in their portrayal of marginalised communities in the American South.
Minervini’s filmmaking style evolves through each work. In The Passage, there seems to be a sense of disconnect among the characters: they hardly talk to each other and are connected only as passengers on a road trip. Low Tide is also quiet and there’s little said between the mother and son. With Stop the Pounding Heart, one starts to hear more dialogue between characters, and the connection between two disparate ways of life is explored through an impending love connection. In The Other Side, dialogue is in full force and a sense of community and banter explodes to life.
“In a sense, the filming becomes a brainstorming process,” Minervini says, “and when I review the footage, I extract the images that actually tell the story. That would be the fiction part of the process.” The Passage focuses on a Texas woman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and is told to see a healer in Marfa. Without friends or family, she comes across a ragtag blues musician, who she pays to drive her across the state. “The Passage was scripted,” says Minervini. “It was the only film of which I’ve written a conventional screenplay. Although… at some point I discarded the screenplay and I just embraced people and places that I found throughout the journey.” The characters seem to embrace each other more fully as the film progresses, culminating in a heartbreaking communal bath in a Texas national park.
“My gaining access with the community was by creating bonds; relationships with these people has nothing to do with cinema. It’s not targeted towards making films,” Minervini says. This closeness with his subjects allows the director to tow the line between documentary and fiction. Especially in the earlier films like The Passage and Low Tide, we see the director utilise his subjects as cameras themselves. Minervini empathetically and invisibly gets inside these people and uses their lives as his own lens in to the unfamiliar terrain.
Low Tide centres on a young boy and his destitute and emotionally unavailable mother (played by real life mother and son, Millie and Daniel Blanchard) who makes her son fetch beers for her, while encouraging him to party with her and her reckless gang of friends. There is a sense of inner tension and loneliness that permeates the characters in this and his other films. The first time we see the boy smile is a beautiful scene when he discovers the joys of bouncing on his spring mattress, alone.
Minervini works with a skeleton crew where trust and camaraderie is paramount. And there is a sense of respect for the subjects/actors as well. “There are moments when I lead the process, and moments when they lead the process,” he says. “When they lead the process they simply ask me to follow them. I just turn on the camera and follow them… whatever they do they are going to do, there’s no questions asked.” Minervini continues to explain his shooting philosophy. “The second part is when I still try to observe, but I make my request. And I ask questions: is there something I can do specifically… is there’s a behaviour that I can depict because… sometimes some pieces of the puzzle are missing.”
Stop the Pounding Heart features a wider breadth of characters and more extensive dialogue. Yet at its core, Minervini says, “it’s a relationship between the girl (Sara Carlson) and God.” There is a scene where Sara’s mother is talking to her about relationships and trust. One can’t help but wonder if this scene is merely observational or staged in some way, as it mirrors Minervini’s own philosophy of integrity-driven filmmaking and his desire to show his subjects with an extremely non-judgmental style.
The mother says, “Serving God…means enjoying people that He’s put in our path. And He puts people in our path for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes to bless us, encourage us; sometimes to refine us, sometimes to teach us patience. But the one thing that we need to always do is treat them [people] as if they are valuable and precious to God. Part of that is how we look at other people. We [should] look at them as having inherent value in and of themselves.”
Minervini clearly communicates these same values in the treatment of his subjects. This compassionate stance may test audiences in regard to the drug-addled and utterly violent main characters of his most recent film, The Other Side. The other side refers perhaps to the other side of the Texas border, as the film takes place in Louisiana. But it also refers to the other, darker side of America. Half the film focuses on Mark and his girlfriend, who get high on heroin together. When Mark’s not getting high or breaking into homes, he sells drugs to his friends and family within his seedy trailer park, meth-addled world. The second half of the film focuses on a dangerously violent militia in the Louisiana backwoods. They believe that “a revolution is coming” and direct all of their explicit anger towards President Obama.
The filmmaker, who knew some of the militia members before filming, was interested in portraying the roots of the political violence with his typical open-heartedness and sensitivity. “These people give voice to their political credos in a very violent way, which is more of the norm today,” Minervini says. “It’s something that I feel deserves a bit of a reflection, a debate.”
Minervini calls The Other Side his most political film. “During the past eight years, of the Obama administration,” says Minervini, “I witnessed a dramatic change in American politics, which is the introduction of something we know very well in Italy: political obstructionism. It’s the political minority just saying no for political reasons.” He is referring, of course, to the difficulties Obama and the Democrats have had passing laws that are rejected by Republicans. Movements like “Black Lives Matter” and Donald Trump’s bullying and racist campaign tactics can serve as examples of the increasing divisiveness in American politics. “Politics have become more violent, way more violent,” Minervini reaffirms. “I wanted to go and explore the roots of this new wave of political violence that is dooming the country. For me it was very important to listen to this anger and I went to the core of it.”
The films of Roberto Minervini screen at TIFF Bell Lightbox Saturday, June 11 and Sunday, June 12 with Roberto Minervini present to introduce all of the films.