Interview: Roberto Minervini (The Other Side)

Your first three films, The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart, comprise what you have called the “Texas trilogy”. Your last work, The Other Side, explores and tells the stories of the people and places of Louisiana. How did you make contact with these communities?

I came to Louisiana thanks to Todd Trichell, the patriarch of the bull riders you see in Stop the Pounding Heart and the father of Colby, the boy who is the protagonist of the film. For me Todd was a sort of guide, introducing me to the ways and places of the south of the US. He has a difficult story of his own which resonates with the people of Louisiana. He saved himself, left the poverty and ruins of Louisiana to try his luck in fertile, rich Texas, and made a life for himself there. He’s the only one of his circle who succeeded in getting out. The family we see in Louisiana is related to Todd: his sister, Lisa, is the girlfriend one of the protagonists of The Other Side. Because of this, I started working in West Monroe in north Louisiana to get to know Todd’s and his family’s roots. The initial idea was to explore Todd’s past so I could better understand his present and then work backwards. But once I got to Louisiana I discovered an entire world, and I never left. I began to see this place was not a starting point for understanding the characters in Texas but instead a destination. I had to launch a new exploration. What I had thought would be the final stretch of a long cycle – meaning the trilogy – had become a new beginning.

What did you find in Louisiana?

In north Louisiana, unemployment is 60 percent. The people are ravaged by amphetamines and poverty. Initially the film was going to tell small, intimate, family stories but then the scope widened because the common denominator of all these communities is anger at everyone who isn’t like them, especially the institutions that abandoned them. The film began to take on a political cast, and this led me into the paramilitary communities. As the scope of the film widened, so did its ambition of telling a larger and less known story: the story of the Midwest, a region in freefall, jobless, anti-government, anti-free market, anti-institution, and where public opinion and government policy had been completely delinked. This was the story not just of the Trichells but also of the events that were affecting a very important area of the United States. For me, this meant a shift from an approach of observation and personal analysis to one that was more political.

The Other Side

Given this change in approach, why did you choose to tell the stories of Mark, Lisa, Jim, and the other members of the community?

It was a gradual process that began in the summer of 2013, when I travelled to West Monroe to meet the extended Trichell family. In contrast to Texas, and Texans, in Louisiana the first thing you sense is anger. The people I met immediately took me in, made me a part of their lives, and making absolutely clear their desire to be heard and seen.

I remember well meeting the future protagonists of the film for the first time at a diner. They said right off, “We never set foot in places like this. Everyone’s looking at us, rich whites and poor blacks. We don’t belong to either, or any other group, because we’re poor whites. We were cast out of this society. We’re in limbo, we’re angry about it, and we don’t want to stay this way.” The discussion immediately became political, and the film did as well.

After the first meetings, I went back between October and December 2013 to deepen my understanding and make sure that they would remain open to me in the presence of a movie camera. They did. Their desire to make themselves heard came across genuine, pure, and clear, camera or no camera. The difference between this project and the Texas trilogy is that I was led by hand, even dragged by force, into this world. The final choice of characters thus happened naturally. The characters emerged because they wanted their stories to be heard, each in his or her own way: some spoke of their suffering, others merely wanted to be seen, like the pregnant woman or the boy who dreamed of being a soldier. The actions and bodies alone of these people speak with disarming eloquence.

How did you end up among the paramilitary group, which is the second community featured in the film?

After a year of establishing contact, gathering material, and exchanging ideas, the members of the community of drug addicts made real progress in their process of self-discovery, grew more courageous, and understood that they were subversives in their own way. What had been anger was transformed into a need for insubordination. I don’t mean armed insubordination, in part because some of them cannot legally own weapons – which they feel is a violation of their constitutional right, as serious as denial of the right to vote. Unable to own weapons, they feel vulnerable. I discussed this subject with them at length, and in our discussions they made frequent mention of “the other side”, meaning, the community of those who had weapons. And thus, in what had turned into a sort of sociological study of a deep and forgotten zone of America, I sought out “armed groups” that were animated by the same rage and insubordination. This was possible, again, thanks to certain members of the extended Trichell family, who introduced me to the paramilitary world.

The paramilitary group is very different from the West Monroe group. Their ideology seems so extreme they could be considered fanatics.

The paramilitary group made radical life choices. It transformed itself into an insular community fortified by powerful ideals. Becoming the other side, crossing to the far shore, barricading themselves against other people, all this is a question of survival that is explicitly stated in the film. For these warriors, their struggle is not about politics or class or society or immigration but simply about themselves and their families, which represent the last bulwark for them. Without family, for them all is lost.

It is important to note that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the concept of National Security changed drastically in the U.S. The 2002 National Security Plan of George Bush gave the federal government significant new powers, legitimised the use of force to resolve conflicts, even domestically – like the recent escalation of police violence against black Americans – and eroded privacy protections of citizens. These changes threw into crisis the unity of the country by bringing into sharp relief the social, economic, and political differences between the various states and regions.

If the premises that American society was founded upon are in crisis, then the rhetoric of the paramilitary groups no longer sounds fanatic but is instead an expression of discomfort, the valid concern for a society that is breaking apart. They feel abandoned by the institutions and think their ancestral rights are being trampled. The paramilitary groups like white power (Mark and Jim) are on the other side of an island that is breaking away.

Your mode of filming is characterized by a closeness, almost an intimacy, with the people you are lming. Even when the subject matter is very difficult, and you are showing the characters in extreme situations or expressing repulsive ideas, the humanity of these characters emerges. Can you talk about that?

Respect and trust are born and grow image by image. I shoot just 20 percent of the time. In the rest I build up a relationship of a kind of love with the characters, a love without promises or vows, a love that takes you by surprise, that forms moment by moment. The relationship that developed with these people is honest and very mature, and obviously is not one formed in a few days. I have known the Trichell family since 2011. We have worked together on three films. That is why they introduced me to their extended family in Louisiana as someone who could be trusted completely. Then when we began shooting, my crew and I spent entire days and nights together with the characters of the film, sharing very intimate and personal situations in which we put ourselves on the line, openly stating what our intentions were. Without this initial straightforwardness, this candidness, the truth and the humanity of these characters would not have emerged.

The Other Side

I’d like you to say something about the question of the “fiction of the documentary”. Your films show real people in real situations. These “witnesses” are transformed into “characters” the moment that in the film they become protagonists in the story of their lives.

I want to capture the real, what I see. I have no orthodox film making training. I studied documentary film making but I am not a “master” of the language of documentaries, or the language of fiction. What I probably know best is the language of the still image, of photography, reporting. That’s why I say I try to capture what I see.

There is no acting in my films. There are renderings of the real chosen together with the people I am filming, selected to best represent the characters. They are not moving images but rather still images that I combine in a sequence. My eye is photographic. This sequence of photograms shares somewhat the rhythm of fiction films, one the one hand, and the content of cinema verite on the other. It lies in between the two.

Could you share something of your approach to making a film?

I’d say the essential element of the way I make films is getting out of the way. This means above all that we, the crew, come across as a non-crew, and melt into the environment.

The camera is stripped of all accessories. In fact we use a single lens and one small monitor that we all share. There is little else, a few cables, maybe a camera without a mic. This lets us come across as amateur film makers, as if we were just making a home movie. And it lets me recede as author, as omniscient film maker. This is the most important element.

The other crucial element is the length of each take. We shoot without interruption for at least 20 minutes, normally in total silence, because with such long takes the relationship between me and the characters is no longer merely visual and aural but almost olfactory. The camera essentially disappears. Ultimately this submersion in the scene also involves a loss of control over how the shots turn out, and an almost complete passing of the baton from myself to the subjects of the film.

Until now I always recorded sound with a boom, never wireless, to keep from interfering with the organic flow of the scene. In this film the situation is slightly different. Certain characters have become an integral part of the creative process; I work together with them on building the scenes, so in a way they are also the authors, directors, and film makers. Perhaps I went too far.

Had you written out anything in advance of starting to shoot, or did the structure emerge in the editing process?

During the shooting of The Other Side, Denise Ping Lee, the co-writer of the film, was always taking notes, which we would look over together at the end of each day as we analyzed each situation. It was a daily process of seeing where the stories we were telling converged or diverged, and deciding where they would go from there. We shared all of these decisions with the characters right away and adjusted them together if necessary. Denise and I are spider-writers, meaning we are happy spinning a web however intricate and complex it is. This became the basic structure of the film.

Interview by Dario Zonta


The Other Side screens during Document 2016 at 6:10pm on Sunday 23 October in the CCA Cinema. Buy tickets here.

Director’s Statement: Next Stop: Utopia

When we started filming, almost three years ago, the attempt of the Viome workers to take over their abandoned factory, neither us, nor them knew the extraordinary experience that lied ahead of us. What we ended up documenting was an intense adventure that brought mixed feelings of uncertainty and frustration with excitement and hope and provided us with a powerful story with many layers.
The case itself is extreme; workers with no work experience outside the production line, driven by despair, decide to start a small revolution, just for a chance to win back their lives. They want to establish an island of utopia in a capitalist environment and of course they meet a thousand obstacles and conflicts at every level.

They are going against the law, the judicial authorities and the factory’s ex-owners, while they fight to gain some kind of legal status. There are conflicts within the group as well; practicing direct democracy among people with different attitudes, convictions and ideas can be very hard. But what proves to be the hardest, is the inner conflicts each individual has to face as the times are calling for a deep personal transformation. These people in their fifties are forced to develop a new identity, one that will allow them to survive in dignity and withstand the sufferings of an “outrageous fortune”. The giant shifts they have to perform can sometimes seem comic and tragic at the same time.

As a filmmaker I felt the need to present, as deeply and as respectfully as I could, characters with opposing point of views. In a way they all represent pieces of a collective social mosaic that is not indicative only of the Greek case, but reflects most European societies today. Ultimately this is a bittersweet tale of real people whose lives cross with history. I am deeply grateful to all of them for honouring me with their trust and letting me tell their story as an adventure of our times.

Apostolos Karakasis


Next Stop: Utopia screens during Document 2016 at 5:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.

Director’s Statement: Kings of Nowhere

I visited the town of San Marcos, Sinaloa, for the first time when I was 13 years old with a theatre company (TATIU) that organized plays in rural and hard to reach communities. In 2009, after enrolling in the CUEC-UNAM film school in Mexico City, I heard that this town of more than 200 years was flooded due to the construction of the Picachos dam. I decided to go back to San Marcos to spent some time there and began to get to know the people that had stayed in the flooded town. With the support of the entire community, we produced the fiction short film Venecia, Sinaloa (Venice, Sinaloa), which was inspired by the families that endured the flood.

During my time there, I often asked myself why did some decide to stay in a town that was flooded with not only water but also with fear. After the construction of the dam, the submerged town became a breeding ground for violence. From being a town with 300 families, it eventually went down to only three. It would seem that the flood had arrived as a metaphor of fear.

I then made the decision to take some time off film school to make a documentary inspired by the stories of the people that had stayed there even in the most adverse conditions. Pani was ambushed and shot while driving his truck, but instead of leaving, he decided to stay and rebuild the town. “In life there are no handles… We are floating in the universe”, says Pani, who tries to grab on to life through faith. Everyday, Miro takes food to a cow that was stranded in a small island with the rise of the tide and feels just as trapped in San Marcos as the animal in the island. He feels the urge “to float away” and that the town is doomed to be buried in the mud. After the exodus of most of the inhabitants, Jaimito and Yoya moved from a wooden shack to the town’s biggest house and live day to day enjoying life as it comes. They all have has their own stance concerning the flooded town and life in general: whether it is idealist, pessimistic or realistic. Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Kings of Nowhere) is their story.

Betzabé García


Kings of Nowhere is the opening gala of Document 2016 at 20:00pm on Thursday 20 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.

Director’s Statement: Angry Buddha

I spent more than three years shooting in the Romany settlement of Sajókaza. The first thing I had to learn was humility. Those people hate cameras. Permission to shoot was eventually granted by some families, albeit reluctantly, and was often withdrawn all of a sudden. I learnt to take things as they happened. I was told to fuck off, experienced pompousness, was bitten by a dog, but was also shown unexpected warmth and humiliating hospitality and got to know – some stereotypes contain a core of truth – a lot of music and partying.

I am not a helper and no activist. I do not claim for myself to lend my voice to the suppressed or to share their fate. I am a guest, a stranger, an outsider. I observe and try to distil a story from the many conflicting impressions.

People in the west tend to believe that everything can be mended by providing enough money and sending experts. But centuries of exclusion are part of many Romany people’s lives. They cannot be helped by money or experts only. But hopefully, they can be helped by the persistence of people like Teacher János – people who have experienced the stigmatization first hand. János and his colleague Tibor have no ready-made recipe. They try something out, they fail, they arouse hostility, they try again. They are revolutionaries who would continue their fight even if they had three fighters and a semi-functioning gun only. Their gun is education. India has proved that education works. There the untouchables simply left the caste system behind by becoming Buddhists. János and Tibor ask themselves why Romany people cannot do the same.

I take my hat off to such stubbornness.

Stefan Ludwig


Angry Buddha screens during Document 2016 at 2:30pm on Saturday 22 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.

Desaparecidos: New Mexican Documentary

Leaving your house knowing that you might never come back is an ordinary feeling amongst people living in Mexico. It doesn’t matter who you are, or who you’re not, no one is immune to the day-to-day dangers. But people don’t really think about it; it has become part of life. In the past decade, levels of violence have escalated to horrifying numbers. Gradually, drug cartels merged with the government, the police, the army, the media…and suddenly Mexicans were left with a country where political campaigns are funded by the cartels, the army and the police follow orders of anyone above them, and the mainstream media covers up all the grimy work done by the authorities, manicuring stories and presenting them as if everything was normal. In a country where kidnapping, rapes and human trafficking are a common occurrence, mass graves are found day and night, and people disappear by the hour, while the current president invites Donald Trump for a visit, citizens have found a way to normalize the chaos in order to get on with their lives. They’ve gotten used to the perpetual presence of the army and armed police in public spaces, the sound of gunshots as a background noise, the constant search for missing people…the country is going through an invisible war that no one recognises, and therefore it keeps crawling into every corner of every street, going through every crack of every building and flowing through the veins of every individual whose shouts for justice are persistently muted by the establishment.

This year, Document presents a strand of New Mexican Documentary where three women filmmakers depict poetic stories of individuals that expose the complexities of the current state of affairs in Mexico. Betzabé García’s Kings of Nowhere conveys the recurrent fear that people have of invisible forces appearing out of nowhere to destroy lives and communities. Tempestad, directed by Tatiana Huezo, interweaves the stories of two women that have been victims of Mexico’s invisible war: Adela, one of the many mothers looking for her disappeared daughter, and Miriam, one of the countless innocent people that are incarcerated to pay for the crimes of others. An intimate portrait of prostitutes is captured by Maya Goded in Plaza de la Soledad, where she paints a picture with a new light featuring the women’s beauty and dignity, and the strength of an underground community that has been around since the Aztecs.

The courage of filmmakers like Betzabé García, Tatiana Huezo and Maya Goded are a contribution towards triggering change in Mexico; it is through these efforts and the efforts of many others that we are able to make this invisible war visible to the world by bringing these stories to international audiences and generating global awareness of Mexico’s status quo.

Carla Novi

Welcome to Document 2016

They expect us to call in sick, 
watch television all night,
die by our own hands. 
They don’t know 
we are becoming powerful. 
Every time we kiss 
we confirm the new world coming.

Extract from American Wedding by Essex Hemphill

Welcome to the 14th edition of Document Film Festival. Year on year we look to foreground the most innovative and challenging documentary film from around the world – from artists and activists committed to raising awareness and developing understanding of our shared human rights.

We look for films that demonstrate that at its best, cinema encourages us to look differently. It asks us to question the meaning and presentation of images and in doing so, to think differently about ourselves, our relationship to each other and to the world.

Over this extended weekend of screenings, workshops, performances and discussions we look particularly at the poetics of documentary form. We examine the creative, experimental and affective techniques filmmakers develop in order to work through complex, often overlapping systems of oppression that characterise so much of the global landscape.

The impulse to experiment finds many echoes, not only in the history of radical protest and thinking, but also in the explicitly contemporary context of social networks, grassroots organising and the emergence of genuinely intersectional political movements like Black Lives Matter.

Festival highlights include the sci-fi rendering of Zhao Liang’s polemic Behemoth and Hubert Sauper’s hallucinatory modern-classic We Come As Friends; a searing double bill charting the b-side of the Palestinian refugee experience from filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel; and a rare screening of Peter Watkins’ six-hour quasi-documentary La Commune (Paris, 1871), which reimagines the communard uprising of 1871.

We’re delighted also to showcase the work of Glasgow photographer and filmmaker Chris Leslie, whose lyrical urban portraits chart the shifting geography and changing communities of our city, and to hold a hands-on video activism workshop in collaboration with Camcorder Guerrillas and Reel News collectives.

Few filmmakers typify the art of looking differently more profoundly than the subject of our retrospective strand, Marlon Riggs; a black, queer artist who, until his untimely death, worked tirelessly as an educator and activist to confront overlapping legacies of oppression. His work stood as a defiant response to the US government’s inaction in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Inaction that revealed whose lives mattered and whose didn’t in the eyes of the state.

Riggs understood the language of visual culture, how it is used to oppress and how it can be used to liberate. His was a striking, incisive and above all generative cinema of liberation. With this in mind, we hope you will join us for an exciting and invigorating weekend of looking, thinking and discussing.

The Document 2016 team