Robert Frank’s travels through America resulted in one of the most important photo collections in our nation’s history. Along the way, he took pictures of smokestacks, lunch counters, sidewalks, TV sets, and urinals. Markers of racial segregation were paired with images of society women, perhaps on their way to a ball: the surfaces were ordinary but the implications were biting. When the photos were published as The Americans in 1959, they were criticized. Popular Photography described Frank’s vision as “marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudices”; many harped on his status as an immigrant. Today, of course, Frank is hailed as a pioneer, and his status as a non-citizen is seen as one of the reasons for his unique perspective on American life.
It makes sense that critics aren’t embracing Italian director Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side for some of the same reasons. The film is a meandering work of docu-fiction filled with renegade gunmen, illegal drugs, and anti-government rants that would make any viewer cringe. Minervini spends entire scenes in the company of impoverished, beer-guzzling idlers who confirm some of the worst stereotypes we might have about them. Yet this shocking portrait of Louisiana drug addicts and a pro-gun militia is also remarkably sweet. Minervini has the ability to turn grimy situations into art while affording any perceived “degeneracy” on screen a style of attention that takes his subjects as seriously as they take themselves.
Mark is a drug dealer with big eyes and a concave chest. When the film opens, he’s naked and lying on the side of the road like Adam in some warped Biblical paradise. Minervini follows Mark around his small southern town, where unemployment, alcoholism, and criminality are as common as the stinking heat. If the lead’s performance seems stilted, that makes sense. Following in the tradition of his previous “Texas Trilogy” films, The Other Side is a hybrid of fiction and documentary. Mark is a real person playing a fictionalized version of himself. Much of the film is spent watching him eat, sleep, work, and wander; this extreme level of realism gives the film a sense of urgency that any scripted drama would lack. It also helps rids the film of the kind of “poverty” clichés that make films like Beasts of the Southern Wild so exasperatingly artificial.
Mark’s girlfriend Lisa shares his taste for meth and lazy afternoons in bed. They’re felons, addicts, and drifters but they’re also, at times, the cutest couple you’ve ever seen. One night at a bar, Lisa grabs Mark by the cheeks and says, “You know what I wish?” She pets his hair. Her voice is raspy. “I wish I could take all your pain away.” It’s the sort of moment that cuts to the core of their lives, and ours.
The politics of the film plays out in equally surprising ways. As a convicted felon, Mark has lost his right to vote and bear arms. He’s overlooked and disregarded, and he knows it, at one point saying he’s on “the other side” of the government. Mark’s friends and neighbors voice equally strong opinions. They make distasteful comments about the government and President Obama, but there is truth in their anger. They perceive the structural conditions of their marginalization while knowing there’s little they can do about it. In this way, Minervini makes their disempowerment visible. It becomes the viewer’s responsibility to consider the lives with empathy and respect.
The latter half of the film is devoted to a heavily armed militia. They’re convinced that Obama will declare martial law in Louisiana and they’ve taken it upon themselves to prepare. The leaders make long, tear-stained speeches about the importance of individual rights and they even a fly plane with a banner that reads, “LEGALIZE FREEDOM!” Yet for all their camouflaged paranoia, these men exhibit a sense of loyalty that’s worth admiring. After traipsing through a forest with an AK-47, one militia member stresses, “the only thing that matters is the man next to you [. . .]That’s who you fight for, that’s who you keep pushing for.”
The Other Side has been criticized for indulging a curiosity of the “other” that’s exploitative in nature. It’s not an unfounded concern. The film’s remote Louisiana setting is far from the cosmopolitan cities where it might screen; as a result, the position of people watching the film will likely be different from that of the people featured on screen. Critics have furthermore remarked that it makes viewers “ashamed” of their countrymen, but more enlightened audiences might find the opposite is true, or at the very least might come away with a more ambivalent response. Minervini’s shooting style is one of intimacy, not judgment. His direction has been compared to Harmony Korine’s but Minervini doesn’t ridicule the meth, sex, and beer, or turn it all into spectacle. Rather, he relies on patient observation, visual artistry and a devotion to realism that takes on a spiritual quality.
Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first edition of The Americans. He praised “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHINGness and the American-ness of these pictures!” He was right. Robert Frank captured a side of America that could be grim or superficial—but it was always honest. The same could be said for Minervini. When Mark proposes to Lisa one day in the swamps, he does it in plain, American vernacular: “You gonna be my bitch, till death do us part!” They take off their clothes and climb into their swamp. They laugh and kiss. Let freedom ring.