There is a part of America, or American society if you will, whose existence the rest of America would rather ignore, and does so. And if they don’t, they generally dismiss these people on the fringes of society as ‘white trash’ or ‘trailer trash’, bringing with it an enormous stigma. Drug addicts, drunks, strippers in seedy bars, this is a group of people at the bottom of the barrel. But Roberto Minervini’s new documentary The Other Side (Louisiana), playing in Un Certain Regard, shows that beyond the negatives you will find individuals who experience the same emotions as the rest of us, have the same dreams as the rest of us, and are just as much human beings as the rest of us. Despite a jarring shift of focus in the final third, the first hour of The Other Side offers an extremely touching and oftentimes sad portrait of people who have taken a wrong turn in life, desperately trying to turn the car around, or at least stay on the road.
Although it is billed as a documentary, at times, given what is on display, this is hard to believe. The subjects of the film, and in particular those in the first two-thirds of the film, are documented in some incredibly private moments, including one where the two ‘leads’ of this section are having sex. This requires an enormous level of trust between the filmmaker and his subjects, trust that according to Minervini is built over a long time and through extended single takes, often 20 minutes long (obviously edited down for the film). The result is a submergence in this community that is complete, allowing us to get a close look at the humanity that these people undoubtedly possess, however dismissive we would normally be of them. Sure, Mark and Lisa are flawed people, but Minervini still portrays them as people, warts and all. So we get to know them as warm and loving too, as people who are capable of making sensible decisions, even if they are born out of despair, and as people willing to better themselves if possible. They know they are not the cream of the crop, and they don’t strive to be. But they do want out of the mess they are in, and it is here that the core that Minervini wants to show is touched upon: this is a group of people that feels left behind, disenfranchised. They are resolutely anti-government, and certainly sternly anti-Obama, but it would be too easy to label them as Republicans (to the point of one of the characters fiercely supporting Hillary Clinton). But above all, they feel they are not heard, and it seems they have grabbed on to this documentary to change that.
With his fly-on-the-wall approach, the camera often close to his subjects, Minervini catches these people at some of their most intimate moments, and it isn’t always pretty. Virtually everybody uses drugs of some kind (and sometimes several kinds). In one especially harrowing scene, one of the protagonists of the film is shown shooting heroin up the arm of a pregnant stripper, who is later shown while she does her act. The sadness of these images hits the viewer in the core. Instead of condemning them, there is a great sense of pity for these people that is evoked by the film, and a lot of humanity in the portrayal of Mark, Lisa, and the people in their vicinity. Mark meets his sister, also an addict, twice during the film, and you feel the familial love between them. Yet he still sells her drugs. Again, the characters are flawed, but they are not downright bad people. There is casual racism, there are of course the drugs and the booze, and there is at times the pent-up anger, but a lot of this comes from the feeling of being forgotten, and of all their rights being taken away.
In the last half hour, the focus of the film shifts to another group of people, who also feel their rights are being taken away: a paramilitary group, formed by men who want to protect their ‘right to bear arms, to protect our families’. This is a group of people that you can more easily associate with right-wing nuts, and even though there are moments of clarity in their rhetoric, most of their opinions and actions conform more to the stereotypical image we have of militiamen like these. Here we rarely get a glimpse of the people behind the caricature, a glimpse we got so often in the first hour. The shift of focus is also so sudden that it is jarring. There is one thing that both these groups have in common though, and that is they feel trampled upon and besieged, forgotten and marginalized. The Other Side shows a part of society we rarely get to see, so intimately and stripped of clichés, baring an unexpected (because of prejudice) humanity that is at times affecting to the point of tears. Unfortunately, the film shifts gears in the last half hour and loses its power. Still, the first hour is some of the most powerful filmmaking seen on the Croisette this year, and for that hour alone, The Other Side should not be missed.