“The Other Side”
A World That is Upside Down and Inside Out
Documentarian Roberto Minervini gives us an intimate portrait of poverty, drug use, racial tensions and pent-up aggression in a community where there is a fragile line between violence, vulnerability, depravity and tenderness. Minervini puts his focus on the invisible territories at the margins of society in Louisiana. His characters, “bastard stepchildren of the American Dream,” as noted by Variety, respond to a threat of abandonment by political institutions by encasing themselves in anarchy. Minervini’s looks at the disenfranchised world of drug addicts, directionless young women and soldiers still at war with the world. The reactions we see include militarization, xenophobia and depraved sexuality.
I understand that “The Other Side” was one of the more explicit films at the Cannes Film Festival this year outside of Gaspar Noé’s “Love,” (reviewed elsewhere here). The film opens with a full-frontal shot of a naked man, passed out on the side of the road. It is a relatively normal scene for the documentary, which focuses on the citizens of a rural Louisiana town and features rampant nudity, sex, and drug use. The film zeroes in on a marginalized community to present an unadulterated and poetically tragic portrait of small-town America.
It’s a community filled with people like Mark (Mark Kelley) and Lisa (Lisa Allen), who spend much of their time drinking, smoking weed, or using methamphetamine. When Mark is not doing meth, he is cooking small amounts of it in a dark, cramped trailer and selling it to everyone from his sister to a pregnant woman. There are several moments during which audience members may walk out: Mark helping Lisa shoot up using veins on her breasts, Christmas dinners dominated by criticism of President Obama and liberal use of the N-word, and even the aforementioned pregnant woman doing meth before doing her shift at a strip club. As a person who grew up in Louisiana, I did not see much new here but for those who do not know the South, there will be plenty of surprises.
Minervini portrays this squalor from a cool, detached perspective (which is a fascinating technique) even when Mark criticizes Obama’s economic policies or a toothless veteran rambles on about Hillary Clinton, Minervini does not pass judgment. His goal seems to be to highlight the unseen tragedy behind the town’s unabashed hedonism, in moments such as one when Mark and Lisa contemplate voluntarily going to jail for three months to kick their drug dependency.
The characters are in no way likeable but we do see their vulnerability and we try to be empathetic as difficult it is to do so. We see wet T-shirt contests and hear discussions about the rights guaranteed by the second amendment and we realize that the people that we see here are desolate with no real place in society. Even when the film focuses on a tightly knit militaristic group of Libertarians, we see the bitter irony of their existence; that until the collapse of society into total anarchy, they will be forever irrelevant and on the fringe. Once we get past the shock value of the film’s brutally honest portrayals of debauchery, we get a chance to see a part of society that most people will never see.
By immersing himself among drug addicts, anti-government zealots and various other extreme personalities, Minervini has captured a troubling side of the country’s identity that locals prefer to ignore. Living in Louisiana, we knew that this existed but it was never spoken about. I see how people can be put off by this documentary but I think that it is an important part of education to be aware that there are people who live like this.
“The Other Side” is shocking in its portrayal. One moment, we see a pregnant woman mainlining heroin in a bar bathroom, and the next, she’s spreading her legs for dollar tips on the strip-club stage. These things do happen, but can they be considered representative of the microcosm under scrutiny? What is so sad is that even as exploitative as this film is, those in the film (none of whom are actors) allow themselves to be filmed showing their depraved way of life. Though the characters never directly acknowledge that they’re being observed, a number of scenes feel constructed especially for the camera’s benefit, lending a certain illusion of narrative, when what we’re actually seeing is a collection of repeated actions — a depressing pattern of behavior.
Minervini’s main character, Mark, is a skinny small-time drug dealer with more tattoos than teeth, who passes his days doing odd jobs, getting high with his girlfriend Lisa and breaking into empty buildings. Mark makes a few bucks here and there doing honest work, but does better selling heroin to friends and family. He is a criminal who’s deferred his prison sentence until his elderly mother passes away, he’s lost the right to vote and to bear arms thus putting him on “the other side” from those allowed to defend themselves from a greedy government. The movie doesn’t delineate particularly well between these two sides, but the idea seems to be that rural Louisiana is made up two groups: those who either shoot up targets at the gun range, or those who shoot up heroin in the privacy of their homes (or smoking crack, drinking beer, etc. to erase the burden of real life). This is a far from a city like New Orleans where we have a little bit of everything except this degree of depravity. Many of these folk do not know that New Orleans even exists and if they go to a city, they go to Beaumont because it is closer.
“Uncle Jim,” who never once appears sober in the film is like all of the people Minervini decided to include. He’s an inherently pitiful figure and a walking ghost in one of the country’s most poverty-challenged communities, overlooked by a system he considers to be more interested in propping up Wall Street than supporting the so-called “common folk” but what we realize is that if Jim and his peers are common, then the United States has bigger problems than it’s willing to admit.
For the first half of the movie, “The Other Side” observes Mark and Lisa’s unconventional relationship. They show disdain for wardrobe just as they do for the law. We see graphic depictions of sex and drug use alternating with long scenes in which barely lucid characters spew racist and otherwise disrespectful rhetoric about President Obama.
All of this is mild compared to the militia group that becomes the film’s primary focus once Mark mysteriously exits frame. These guys have more money, lots of firepower and a downright frightening agenda. They’re convinced that Obama plans to declare martial law any day in Louisiana, and they retaliate by taking their machine guns out to the range and blasting away at effigies of the president. I don’t believe that Minervini wanted us to be ashamed of other Americans but this is how it came across.
There is scene where Jim, his eyes filled with tears, he reads a poem stuck to his fridge: “To all those who feel worthless,” it begins. That may as well be the film’s own dedication line as it somehow managed to find some beauty in desperation and squalor. There are moments when it’s ultimately hard to tell if the movie is trying to render its subjects with some humanity or otherwise if it’s taking advantage of all these poor, beautiful losers.