Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side (2015) is a strangely, asymmetrically bifurcated movie. It starts with a mysterious, brief prologue: for several shots, we see various armed men dressed in camouflage gear, advancing silently through the woods. Then, for the next hour, the film shifts its focus and concentrates on the everyday life of Mark (Mark Kelley) and Lisa (Lisa Allen), a couple living in Bawcomville, a neighbourhood in an impoverished community, West Monroe, situated in the state of Louisiana, USA. Finally, for the last 25 minutes of the film, we return to the woods of the prologue in order to witness the indoctrination, training and Fourth of July celebration by a group of paramilitaries getting ready for what they anticipate as an imminent invasion – by the US government itself.
The origins of The Other Side go back to Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), the previous film by Minervini, and the third instalment – after Low Tide (2011) and The Passage (2012) – of what is known as his ‘Texas Trilogy’. Tracing the family ties of Colby Trichell, the young male protagonist of Stop the Pounding Heart, the director arrived to Louisiana where he met Colby’s aunt Lisa, her partner Mark and other members of the family.
Minervini has defined his filmmaking approach as a genuine immersion in the lives of the people he portrays – a plunge that creates strong ties of friendship and trust going beyond the project of making a movie. This can be easily felt in The Other Side, where he achieves an incredible intimacy with his protagonists. Unlike his other films, there are no fictional elements structuring the narrative here, no alibis mediating the capture of the protagonists’ daily routines. And yet, we never feel that the camera is intruding or spying, not even in the scenes of Mark and Lisa having sex or taking drugs. Rather, this camera – whose physical presence is skilfully downplayed – seems to be an ally that gives these people the possibility of affirming themselves.
The most compelling aspect of this first part of the film is that, no matter how rough and difficult the lives of these people, love always shines on screen. The inhabitants of the community portrayed by Minervini lack job opportunities that would allow them to aspire to a more comfortable existence; they sink into heavy use of alcohol and drugs; they are haunted by delinquency and health problems derived from their addictions. Yet, in the midst of all this stagnation, there is a tenderness evident in the way they talk and listen to, gaze at and take care of each other.
It is difficult to think of a film that pays so much attention to, and depicts with such passionate commitment, the array of loving gestures – sometimes small, sometimes modest, but always sublime – present in virtually every scene of this first part of The Other Side: a kid carrying a puppy dog inside his shirt to keep it warm; a ‘wishing game’ between Lisa and Mark where she blows on his face to take his pain away; the legs of the couple swinging, intertwined, while they laugh and talk on top of a trailer house; a blanket that provides shelter from the cold; a doll offered as a humble gift; a dope exchange where payment is postponed until the following day; a tear springing from an old man’s eye while he reads a poem devoted to all those who feel lonely, abandoned and worthless; a bath in a river becoming a marriage proposal crowned by an engagement ring; a son clinging to his dying mother, rubbing her hands with a poignant persistence …
I don’t wish to deny the harshness, both emotional and physical, of many scenes that constantly confront us with the realities of deprivation and addiction. But the show of affection conveyed through the accumulation of small-scale gestures has a truly overwhelming effect on the viewer. As The Other Side unfolds, it becomes clearer that the extreme social isolation suffered by these people brings out rage and discontent, but also intensifies their communal ties: they don’t neglect what they can do for each other, they are generous and merciful.
In interviews, Minervini has explained that he shoots with a small crew, using very long, uninterrupted takes. He surely must have had masses of raw material to work with in post-production, innumerable possibilities of structuring and organising his film. And yet he has given a very precise form to its first hour: not necessarily emphasising, but always ensuring, that these precious love exchanges between the characters create a strong, connective thread both piercing and uniting the scenes. This says much about the amorous gaze of a director who finds something extremely moving, at times even heroic, in the community he is portraying.
The second part of The Other Side gives a sudden shock to the viewer. There’s something uncomfortably ill-fitting in the way the two sections work in relation to each other, a kind of arrhythmia on many levels: because of the different length of each part, the distinct time periods covered (the first section develops across several months, the second concentrates on a single day), the contrasting degrees of intimacy and empathy, and – above all – the clash of energies and moods.
There is a scene in the first part in which Mark confesses to his mother his desire to sleep, to rest quietly without being disturbed. After the funeral of the old woman, Mark enters the woods, gets undressed, and sits with his back against a tree. Then, in an abrupt cut, the movie abandon’s Mark story and takes us to this whole new section, with its new characters.
This brutal excision may remind us of the cuts that lacerate some films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lisandro Alonso – opening different worlds, alternate planes of reality. In The Other Side, there’s something nightmarish in the way we leave Mark resting against that tree, and move from the serene, quiet, almost inward inaction of the first part to the explosive energy – full of macho behaviour, war-crazed schizophrenia, sexual provocation and extroverted celebration – of its subsequent section.
There’s a powerful political comment in the gesture of putting together these two extreme, polarised ways of dealing with social exclusion. The occasional allusions, during the first part, to the cutbacks against individual freedom or the inefficiency of the Obama administration take on a whole new and scary dimension in the speeches of the militia men. Equally, the ties of solidarity we witnessed in the story of Mark and Lisa are mirrored, distortedly, in the excessive, protective paranoia running through these later scenes.
In order to better understand how the two segments of the film feed each other, and how Minervini connects them in both geographical and thematic terms, it is useful to invoke an (apparently) very different film: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). In this fantasy-fiction, a group of people traumatised by the world’s cruelty decide to form a completely secluded community, with no relation to the outside. In order to maintain this safe, protective cocoon, they invent an entire mythology that they pass on to subsequent generations.
Both The Other Side and The Village are deeply concerned with the dynamics through which fear and pain create enclosed societies that turn their backs on a world that has, previously, rejected them. But, in relation to Minervini’s documentary approach, it’s especially interesting to observe how he reinforces this idea by denying us, spatially speaking, any broader view of the community’s environs. In The Other Side, Bawcomville indeed seems completely isolated from the rest of the universe. Strikingly, there’s not a single sign of the presence of media: no television, radio or computers. And no glimpse of the bigger picture, of the surrounding city of West Monroe: just some houses and trailers, some backyards and roads, a river, a bar, and … the woods.
Like in The Village, here the woods seem to be a natural barrier fortifying the enclosure – a limit that must be secured and defended at all costs. In Shyamalan’s fantasy, the magical creatures inhabiting those woods are the fictive menace that, paradoxically, keeps the community safe. Similarly, in Minervini’s documentary, these men-turned-soldiers – who, in their delusion, will raise their guns to protect their families and homes from the brutality of the outside world – become the guardians of that same limit.