Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side documents a down-and-out Louisiana community whose inhabitants occupy a purgatorial rural America where poverty, drugs, alcohol, racism and politics seem to collude against them as they careen toward their doom-eyed fates. The film was originally released in 2015, but its screening at Third Man this week – at the end of the first month of President Trump – couldn’t be timelier.
The “white working class” milieu of The Other Side immediately made me think about the election, but I consciously put Trump and politics out of my mind to give the film a chance to tell its own story. But The Other Side shoves you, face first, into the swampy realities of politics, addiction, racism, small crime, big families and communities bound in mutual survival, faith and an apocalyptic brand of paranoia. The Other Side isn’t rated, but online commenters have suggested an “X” for this disturbing film. I understand that, but I don’t agree. This is a sometimes-hard-to-watch-movie, but it’s also brimming with grotesque, absurd, excruciatingly candid scenes that surprise with their originality, and shock with their electrifying presence.
The Other Side is shot in West Monroe, La., where Mark Kelley is addicted to methamphetamine. He also makes and sells the drug. He has a sister, a niece, a girlfriend, a mother and a grandmother – three generations all still in the same community. All the folk we meet do drugs or drink or dream – Mark’s niece dreams of being a fashion designer, and studying at Harvard or Yale. He tells her she can do anything if she keeps getting good grades in school. Mark is also high all the time, and there isn’t much gravity to his often-bold proclamations of love and loyalty. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s badly messed up.
Minervini’s subjects are fascinating, but his movie’s elusive genre-slipping is absolutely magnetic. The Other Side plays a bit like a John Cassavetes film with their improvisation-inspired scripts, and handheld camerawork. But it’s more accurate to think of The Other Side as a throwback to the cinema vérité films of the early 1960s which brought natural dialogue, arranged scenes, staged set-ups, and stylization to documentary filmmaking. The Other Side is about the real lives of real people in a real place, but they know they’re on camera, and they’re conspiring with the director in the telling of their own story. If you don’t understand this aspect of the film, The Other Side can feel exploitative. But through the lens of cinema vérité, and with the addition of Minervini’s Les Blank-esque preoccupation with natural beauty, The Other Side is a deeply poetic, powerfully moving work of art.
The film’s third act abandons Kelley to start following the exploits of a small militia group that trains in the countryside under the supervision of combat veterans recently returned from America’s ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. The men are dressed in a jumble of different camouflage patterns complete with all the snaps and belts and pockets and reinforced materials that fill your local army surplus store. The men practice wordless hand signals and bird whistles as they navigate homemade obstacle courses, setting up imaginary ambushes. They look pretty tight for weekend warriors, and it becomes clear that the small squad is motivated by a second American revolution that they see as inevitable and imminent.
The military looms large in The Other Side: a reveler at a Christmas get-together wishes for homeless veterans to get the assistance they need; a school assembly remembers the sacrifices of veterans; a drunk man who keeps referring to himself as “Uncle Jim” promises a young boy to teach him everything he knows about combat before the boy grows up to join the military himself.
The last scene in the movie finds the militia squad spray painting “OBAMA SUCKS A**” on an abandoned car in a farm pasture. They add a latex mask of the former president before shooting the vehicle full of holes with a variety of assault rifles. In The Other Side’s final shot, golden hour sunset light pours over the burnt-out hulk of the car while flame flickers are reflected in the metal of the scorched interior. The last line is an exclamation of “America!” Cut to black.
The Other Side is presented by the Belcourt Theatre and Third Man Records’ Light and Sound Machine series. The film screens this Thursday, Feb. 16, in Third Man Records’ Blue Room. Doors at 7 p.m. Film at 8 p.m. Go to www.belcourt.org for tickets and information.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.