'The Other Side' Shows A Desperate, Dangerous Side Of White America
By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 20, 2016 5:52PM
Mark Kelley in “The Other Side.” (Photo: Agat Films & Cie, via Film Movement.)
"I love the poorly educated," Donald Trump declared after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses. He wasn't specifically referring to the people shown in despairing, often frightening fashion in The Other Side—it's a safe bet Trump has never visited the impoverished, rural Louisiana community revealed in the film. But if the G.O.P. nominee loves the poorly educated, he loves this film's protagonists, whose desperation and militancy are echoed in the Trump campaign.
Not that The Other Side is overtly political. It's really an ethnographic study. Director and co-writer Roberto Minervini works outside of film conventions, using an approach some have labeled "docu-fiction." Minervini immerses himself in the world of his real-life subjects, capturing some events as they happen and staging unscripted recreations of others. It isn't quite a documentary nor a docudrama (a dramatic film trying to realistically portray actual events).
One thing is certain, though: In playing themselves, the subjects of The Other Side made little attempt to appear more appealing to viewers outside of their community. The movie's main subject is Mark Kelley, who funds his meth addiction with odd jobs and small-time drug dealing. Highly emotional and physically deteriorating, Mark is initially a sympathetic character, until we hear him call President Obama, "a stupid-ass nigger." Instantly, the rage and ignorance beneath his sadness rises to the surface.
Mark lives in a trailer with his girlfriend Lisa, also an addict; most of his neighbors and family members are similarly trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and addictions. To say the movie is intimate is an understatement. We see Mark and Lisa having sex (seemingly not simulated), cooking and using meth, and we see Mark "on the job" serving a very pregnant stripper who shoots up before her performance. There is no glamorized decadence here.
Scene from “The Other Side.” (Photo: Agat Films & Cie, via Film Movement.)
I first read about The Other Side in an excellent Film Comment article by Nick Pinkerton that had me ready for many disturbing moments, but also expecting to feel some compassion for the subjects in spite of their behavior and beliefs. Pinkerton may simply be a more generous soul than I am, because my main feeling after watching this powerful but repellent portrait was relief I never had to spend time with these people again.
That feeling became even stronger a little more than halfway through the movie, when Mark vanishes as the main subject and the focus turns to a paramilitary group. Less poor and certainly far more functional than Mark, these gun-brandishing conspiracy theorists are also far more terrifying. They firmly believe the United Nations is coming in to take over the U.S., that martial law is imminent and gun owners will be rounded up into FEMA-run prison camps. Indeed, when you hear their ready-to-shoot rhetoric, you only wish they were far less functional than Mark.
Minervini captures all this day-to-day madness with no critical commentary or evident judgment, which would have violated the trust of his subjects. Poverty, societal marginalization and other socioeconomic factors that lead to this kind of culture are certainly longstanding and need to be addressed. But The Other Side exists simply to show that culture, not to remedy it. It's a world those of us in larger cities and from more educated backgrounds rarely see, and it needs to be seen. This is a significant part of our nation.
The movie captures backwoods landscapes with an eerie kind of beauty. It's unsettling that so much fury exists in such a serene, natural environment. "God's country" looks positively violated in the movie's climactic scenes, when the paramilitary group and their friends have a beachside bacchanal of a party.
At one point, a woman wearing an Obama mask simulates giving fellatio to one of the would-be soldiers holding a dildo. Then the mask is positioned in a car that is spray-painted with "Obama sucks ass." The weapons come out and the empty car is riddled with bullets in a fantasy assassination before the shooters start smashing the vehicle to pieces and kicking the doors off.
As the destruction ended, the credits rolled and a chill ran up my spine.
The Other Side. Directed by Roberto Minervini. Written by Minervini and Denise Ping Lee. Starring Mark Kelley, Lisa Allen and others as themselves. 92 mins. No MPAA rating: contains explicit language, sexuality and graphic scenes of drug use.
Starts Friday, July 22 at Facets Cinémathèque.