An artist of herculean empathy turns his camera on a narrow-minded community in The Other Side, Italian director Roberto Minervini’s fourth cinematic sojourn in the American South. Nearly every moment in this Bayou-set docu-fiction hybrid engenders a tricky twofold reaction: The words and actions of the people on screen often trigger revulsion, anger, or pity, even as Minervini’s camera tenderly cozies up to its subjects, examining them in intimate proximity until the root causes and emotional justifications for their destructive behaviors become impossible to ignore.
As one of several subjects who offer up ostensibly unveiled versions of their real-life selves, Mark Kelley cooks meth, drops N-bombs, and shoots drugs into anyone from his girlfriend to a pregnant stripper. Yet Minervini, through sheer persistence of observation, asks that viewers accept Mark’s basic humanity, that we see his capacity for love and devotion and acknowledge his charity, even if it entails him selling drugs to family members. The filmmaker also asks us to understand the man’s vices as lamentable outgrowths of a core pain, neglect, and desperation that most of us are thankful enough to be able to combat through more stable support systems.
Many will be put off by this implicit audience request long before the film unexpectedly departs from Mark’s social circle to document a more reflexively off-putting community: a nationalist militia amassing arms and defense strategies for an assumed impending attack from some imaginary Obama-led coalition. After all, the film is replete with ugly, startling visions that present possible barricades to identification: point-blank views of needle penetration, lengthy studies of the grizzled mugs of town drunks going off unintelligibly about gender politics (Hillary Clinton gets a surprising, if not exactly well-reasoned, endorsement), and various defilings of Obama’s likeness, whether via automatic weapons or fellatio. Taken as a whole, The Other Side is pretty much a cataract of ammo for a liberal-minded America that would be content to see this part of the country float off into the Gulf of Mexico.
Minervini welcomes and confronts this aroma of exploitation. If the expected thrust of a film containing such a torrent of politically objectionable imagery would be to cycle PSA-style through the shocks, stacking up the transgressions in garish visual shorthand, The Other Side differs in every way. Minervini’s guiding principle as a filmmaker is poker-faced patience.
Sharing handheld camerawork duties with cinematographer Diego Romero and operator Valerio Azzali, Minervini trains his eye on his on-screen collaborators for prolonged chunks of time, waiting out the dead space, conversational lulls, and behavioral red flags in anticipation of acts of tenderness—such as Mark caressing his lover or offering life advice to a younger comrade. If the filmmaker does editorialize on the fly, it’s never to distort with an obtuse angle or unflattering background juxtaposition; rather, it’s through slight adjustments in camera positioning, fine-tunings that discover the most appealing angles for the soft Louisiana half-light to fall on those that wander through the state’s murky swamps and forests.
As a piece of somber political filmmaking, The Other Side is, despite its exposure of such self-ruinously un-American acts as bigotry and disrespect for the presidential office, about as quintessentially American a text as one could hope for in today’s divided union. It proposes that any effort to unite must begin with compassion and a willingness to dig for the human foundations of troubling ideology, even if those energies finally bang up against insurmountable moral resistance.
When a leader of the militia lectures his compatriots on the virtues of looking out for one another, it’s as moving as a subsequent scene of the same men practicing military drills is horrifying. And when Mark guides his frail and ailing mother on a leisurely afternoon stroll through an overgrown yard, feelings of good will run high—at least until he turns around and presumptuously summarizes the struggle of the “blacks.” This is a film that never forces its audience to reconcile these tensions, and in doing so plants a step forward for humanism and ethnographic cinema alike.