A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

When the World’s on Fire, Gonna Make a Movie about Democracy

A review of Roberto Minervini’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” and Astra Taylor’s “What is Democracy?”

by Tanya LougheadJanuary 2, 2019

Image of Judy Hill1

(Photos are copyright of the author)

I saw ten films at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Many of these films are being released soon so I thought I’d write a few lines about the two that made the strongest impression upon me. Both these movies should be of interest to fellow radical philosophers and, in fact, to everyone. (Theatrical release dates: What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, by Roberto Minervini, opened December 5, 2018 in France, and is awaiting American distribution. What is Democracy?, directed by Astra Taylor, opens in New York City on January 16, 2019.)

Both films speak to urgent themes of our times, including racial tension, misogyny, ongoing wars, imperialism, capitalist crimes against humanity and other species, and impending catastrophes due to global warming. They also remind us that, in the midst of this world on fire, most art seems not only frivolous, but downright collaborationist.

Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is a documentary-fiction hybrid work, in what has recently been termed the genre of “docufiction.” It is a genre that uses non-professional actors, and events from their lives, but combines them with recreated scenes shaped into a narrative. Minervini’s film tells five different stories of the African-American experience, set in contemporary Louisiana and Mississippi. One of the stories is about Judy Hill, the tough but struggling owner of a small New Orleans bar, and another chronicles the activities of a New Black Panther group. At my TIFF screening, Ms. Hill was present along with the producer Paolo Benzi. During the Q&A session, when asked if she knew any of the people in the movie’s other four stories, she answered (to the audience’s surprise) that she did not. The web woven between the five stories—along with of course the shared historical/cultural links between them—was part of the director’s design. It served as a reminder that such narrative shaping and structuring of films, while routine and unremarkable in fiction, is still looked upon with some suspicion in documentary. Minervini, by intercutting between the five stories, seeks to blur the line between the modes of nonfiction and fiction cinema.

Judy Hill2

Making use of “real-world material” (real people, their stories, and their communities) brings with it certain responsibilities, of which Minervini seems to be well aware. When Ms. Hill was asked about how he captured such intimate scenes of honesty for the film, she responded that he wasn’t just a drop-in, visiting filmmaker. He spent months with the characters and built real relationships with them: “he is our friend.”

This is an extremely powerful film—one of the best I’ve seen in years—downright “magical” as this review by Mark Peranson claims. This is not only because we can so easily identify with the individual characters like Judy and Dorothy Hill; the young boys, Ronaldo and Titus; and the various members of the New Black Panthers. But beyond such a love of the characters and their narratives, there are devasting scenes of agape, the likes of which we rarely see in American cinema. Romantic and familial love get all the screen time in American movies. Agape—a profound neighborly love that transcends the self—almost never. There is a scene where a group of Black Panthers make sack lunches with bottled water for homeless persons, and go to an underpass where many are sleeping on boxes, dirty rags and blankets. We see shots of Black hands quietly placing water next to sleeping bodies covered by rags. The scene brought me to tears. When the world is on fire, the Panthers have your back.

I have, in addition, seen two other Minervini “docufictions.” His 2015 work, The Other Side, was widely greeted by critics as one of standout films that year and was my favorite film of TIFF 2015. His earlier film, Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), is also a striking work, but it left me ambivalent about the stance of the movie and the director—and thus my own stance. Ambivalence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, in this film there seemed to be a strong desire on the part of the director to demonstrate his own “objectivity” when faced with conservative, gender-essentialist Christians. The film felt ostentatious in its grasping for objectivity. I appreciated getting close to its characters, especially because most of us would likely not have the opportunity to have long conversations with them in real life, given their reclusiveness from the world and the fact that they home-school their kids in rural areas in a bid to abstain from the values of the normative world. However, Stop the Pounding Heart left me cold. I wanted Minervini to take a more urgent and ethically demanding position—the position that, in fact, he reaches with What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?. It’s almost as if the title of the movie is an internal question from the director to himself—what kind of art must I create given the world before me? He has made what we now need.

Astra Taylor

Taylor’s film What is Democracy? is a Socratic exploration. As a philosopher who teaches courses on Socrates and on justice and democracy every year, the themes of the movie are not new to me. But I recognize that the vast majority of the world is not having daily philosophical discussions on these matters as I do … and that’s what this film is: a philosophy seminar for the world, an occasion for cosmopolitans (citizens of the world) to reflect together on politics. Ideally, screenings of this movie would provide an occasion for neighborhoods and communities to come together and discuss the questions that it raises. Taylor has created a montage of responses to the lead question from young students, professional philosophers, activists, the recently incarcerated, refugees, and more. It shouldn’t shock any of us that some of the most insightful comments about democracy come from the poor and marginalized. The marginalized know things about our society that people at the top and middle don’t know. They play the role of Hegel’s “slave” who sees what the “master” cannot see. This demonstrates exactly why democracy needs all the people, and why improvement in democracy will not come from the top or even the middle class.

The opening quote for the film comes from Plato’s Republic, “Nothing beautiful without struggle.” We immediately go to a shot of a struggling demon representing tyranny as Silvia Federici speaks of divisions in society, of the social body being sawed apart. Taylor then says, “For me, this movie started with a question—what is democracy?—and it’s something never actualized, always something in motion, an ideal we are reaching for. But, everywhere you look, democracy is in trouble.” Cornel West reminds us of Plato’s argument that democracy will always end in tyranny because there is “too much unruly passion and ignorance among people.” Dr. West says Black people in the United States well understand that “majority rule” can be tyranny—democracy cannot merely be the will of the majority because “fascist tendencies are always there” and can take hold of the majority. We cut to a scene of a young Black woman—an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement who tells of a scene at a protest where a white man pulls a gun on the activists. The young woman says, “Me asking for my human rights is offensive to a group of people in this country.” It is a moment that shows us the demon of tyranny.

There are two other scenes from the movie I’d like to highlight. In the first, Ellie Brett, a barber who was incarcerated and “did 9 years”— proves to be a man of deep wisdom. He talks about the psychological effects of being separated from others, from the demos. He explains that when he got out of prison he needed a background check before getting work, an apartment, for everything—it was an attempt to exclude him from everything: “I can’t live anywhere? Work? Vote?” We see how the marginalized are sawed apart from the body politic. Mr. Brett speaks of the corruption of the upper class: an investigator and prosecutor on a corruption case turns out to be an old friend and fraternity brother of the judge hearing the case. He quotes Machiavelli and adds, “there’s me, sitting in a cage—in jail – watching this,” but, you know, “I guess that’s democracy, when the judge comes down and hugs the prosecutor before a trial.” It is a wrenching moment that both moves us and shows us a picture of our society.

In another scene, the Greek scholar Efimia Karakantza gives us an important lesson in democracy when she speaks of the reorganization of Athens. As she draws lines in the sand and gravel, she says that under the new organizing principle, people who don’t know each other—who have never seen each other—have to work together towards a political goal. It’s not just about supporting your friends, family and neighbors. “No—you have to support someone you’ve never seen in your life.” Yes, agape. The question is: How do we grow that?