The latest documentary film by Italian-born, American based, director Roberto Minervini is a disturbing yet poetic look at the hidden underbelly of America’s Deep South, a forgotten reality seldom depicted onscreen that shines a light on the abyss of today’s America.
The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival last year where it received enthusiastic reviews and this February it won the 2016 Nastro D’Argento for Best Documentary, a prestigious prize by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.
Meanwhile in the US the film was received with mixed feelings, some praised Minervini for capturing a troubling side of America’s identity that locals prefer to ignore or else dismiss as worthless “white trash”, while others were highly critical of the director’s stylistic approach calling into question the film’s non-fictional status, suggesting a number of scenes were constructed especially for the camera’s benefit, somewhat accusing the director of “arts-ploitation”.
The controversy stems precisely from the film’s revolutionary style, a new form of hybrid filmmaking half way between documentary and fiction. Minervini follows his characters, all of whom are untrained actors, with an empathic, non-judgmental eye and catches them at some of their most intimate moments, something that can only be achieved through an enormous level of trust between the filmmaker and his subjects especially in such closed communities.
The director’s fascination for American rural dysfunction is not new, having just completed a trio of films referred to as the “Texas trilogy”. For The Other Side he spent almost a year in West Monroe, a remote village in the North of Louisiana where 60% of the population is unemployed, plagued by drug addiction and living in conditions of extreme poverty. Thanks to the connections developed during his previous features, the director managed to build a reputation in the area, establishing contacts, gathering material and, above all, letting the locals feel comfortable around him. The level of trust they put in Minervini is repaid by the respect he shows them and his evident sympathy for them; a sympathy that is conveyed right back to the audience.
Set among the bayous and dilapidated rural towns of the region, the film centres on two separate communities: the outlaw society of small-time meth dealer and addict Mark Kelley, his girlfriend Lisa and his extended family; and the Libertarian paramilitary groups who see themselves as the last bastion of defence against some unspecified threat against America and the freedom it offers them.
Rather than cut the two narratives together, Minervini keeps them distinct.
The first half of the film concentrates on Mark’s highly deranged lifestyle, which, for the most part involves making, taking and selling drugs to his neighbours and family. As he struggles to survive on odd jobs and petty burglary, he is surrounded by equally desperate and hopeless characters, including his unemployed girlfriend and fellow addict, Lisa. The Other Side refers to the place Mark finds himself in: as a criminal who has deferred his prison sentence until his mother dies, he has lost the right to vote and to bear arms which for these people equals with a complete loss of freedom.
This section of the film contains genuinely unsettling moments with graphic depiction of sex and drug use as well as a torrent of racist invective against President Obama who is blamed for their lack of employment opportunities, the term Obamacare is derisively sneered into a mix of degrading insults. The film wants to show the anger and disillusionment of a group of people that feels left behind, disenfranchised, abandoned by the government. The extreme dysfunction and inexorable ignorance of the subjects is an example of the gross economic disparity responsible for breeding such pockets of degradation.
Some scenes are admittedly hard to watch and make it difficult to feel compassion towards Mark, especially when he is shown while shooting heroin up the arm of a pregnant stripper before she goes onstage. Nonetheless, however dislikeable Mark may appear, throughout the story we feel sympathy towards this broken individual who mainly hurts himself and who can be capable of real feelings. Especially in his relationship with Lisa and his terminally ill mother whose pending death weighs heavily on his conscience.
Mark and Lisa reveal themselves entirely, both emotionally and physically, to the camera, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise when at some point they have sex onscreen. The love between them is authentic and unforced. Still, theirs is a toxic relationship that has no future. Sex and drugs are the only things they can give to each other, too weak to get clean and lacking the basic means to make a drastic change in their lives.
What was criticized by some as an exploitative look into poor Southerners is instead skilfully shaped into an empathetic portrait of people locked inside their ruined community and trying to make their best to survive. In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, Mark tells Lisa he wants to go back to prison for three month just to get away from the drugs, admitting to his girlfriend that he “can’t get clean in this fuckin’ town”.
Minervini manages to show the humanity these people undoubtedly possess, however repulsed we would normally be by them. They are fully aware of who they are and the stigma society attaches to them, but they do want out of the mess they are in, they want to be heard, and it seems they have grabbed on to this documentary to change that.
The beautiful wilderness surrounding this strange madness is elegantly shot by cinematographer Diego Romero conferring a sort of lyrical atmosphere to the otherwise depressing scenario. The refined style of the film is so much richer than the typical fly-on-the-wall coverage that it masks the film’s nonfiction status. This is exactly what makes Minervini’s cinema so appealing, its semi-documentary tone that at times intersects with the classical, storytelling of cinema.
When asked about his approach the director explained that there is no screenplay, there are no fake characters in his works. People are not playing themselves, they are themselves: The Other Side is a testament to their lives. According to him, re-enactment or direction is sometimes a necessary tool to successfully complete a project with such a high degree of difficulty.
Mark’s story ends abruptly in order to give space to the second part of the film that focuses on a terrifying right-wing extremist militia group led by two disillusioned vets, who firmly believes that it’s only a matter of time before Obama declares martial law. Their many calls for family and liberty are interspersed with heavy target practice and scenes of drunken mania. With each fervent speech about freedom and Second Amendment rights, their delusional fantasies soon become clear. But while their actions appear pathetic, even comical at times, it doesn’t make their fanaticism any less unsettling.
The shift of focus in the film is so sudden that it abruptly interrupts the narrative. There is one thing that both these groups have in common though, and that is the love of family and the sense of helplessness in knowing they can’t save their loved ones from the grip of poverty and lack of opportunity surely awaiting them.
In what he describes as his most political film, Minervini turns his camera on the socio-political causes of this self-destructive, violent, behaviour. “It was time for me as an American filmmaker, living and working in America, to look for the responsibility at an institutional level.”
Although it is clearly a harsh critique of America’s society, Minervini’s main goal is to give a voice to these people to show that beyond the negatives you will find individuals who experience the same emotions as the rest of us, and are just as much human beings as the rest of us.
The Other Side represents a part of society we rarely get to see, through an intimate stripped of clichés approach, miraculously managing to find a serene beauty in the middle of so much desperation and squalor, showing compassion to its characters without letting them off easy.