With his 2013 documentary Stop the Pounding Heart, Roberto Minervini completed a trilogy of films set in his adopted home state of Texas. This final instalment of the series marked his first outing at Cannes, and he returned to the festival earlier this year with his new documentary-drama, The Other Side. As an Italian expatriate now based in Houston, Minervini has used his films to cultivate an interest in the fringes of American society, particularly in the white poor of its Southern states. In his newest film, he has shifted his focus slightly eastward from Texas, to the town of West Monroe, Louisiana. Here, he hones in on a forgotten community that has been ravaged by poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction.
The opening sequence of Minervini’s film is one of its most captivating. Shots of sweaty, green Louisiana forest reveal more than first anticipated—there are armed and camouflaged man hidden in the foliage. While the presence of these men casts a sense of unease over the ensuing film, it is not until the final section that we gain any insight into who they might be. This sequence also testifies immediately to the fact that the film looks amazing, thanks to cinematographer and Minervini regular Diego Romero. Shooting on RED and in widescreen, Romero has a fantastic eye for the Louisiana landscape. But these gorgeous images actually make for rather ambivalent viewing—what you see going on in them is often far from appealing.
The majority of the film follows Mark, an ex-con and small time drug dealer who wanders around West Monroe, working occasional jobs, visiting family and friends, preparing and selling meth, and getting high with his girlfriend Lisa. The cycle of poverty Mark is entrenched in is never more apparent than when he delivers drugs to his sister—she is unable to pay, but he is equally unable to press her for the money when the electricity has been cut off to the house she lives in with her two children. It is not surprising that Mark struggles to get by, even as a drug dealer. However, it is these relationships with family that may actually redeem Mark—his affection for his relatives is genuine and strongly felt, and they appear to be a very important part of his life.
Before you can start to become disillusioned with Mark, or become too frustrated by his destructive habits, Minervini abruptly shifts his focus in the last third of the film onto a local paramilitary group—the armed and camouflaged men from the opening sequence. The members of this group don’t appear to be struggling under the same weight of poverty as Mark and his family, but they do share a similar sense of disenfranchisement. They have been recruited and trained by a couple of returned soldiers, and their rather amorphous goals seem to be to protect their families, and to defend their right to bear arms. Some even subscribe to the strange notion that Obama is poised to declare martial law in their region, against which they are ready and willing to defend themselves. Set against this group’s frightening, misdirected aggression, and their possession of what looks like an incredibly dangerous arsenal, Mark’s inertia is a far more reasonable and relatable response to extremely trying social circumstances.
Apart from this implicit comparison, The Other Side has little in the way of agenda or narrative. Minervini allows the film to meander, so that it remains almost as aimless as Mark’s day-to-day. While this works quite well as a reflection of the pace of life in the community, Minervini’s decision to eschew any framing or contextualisation makes it difficult to understand these people’s lives and problems, or trace the latter to any particular cause. The subjects of the film may be as confused on this point as the viewer. There is a strong sense among the community that Obama is accountable for their situation, a feeling that frequently takes the form of discomfiting racist comments. The president’s face even serves for target practice in paramilitary training, and at one point a woman wearing an Obama mask fellates a plastic phallus. Yet dissatisfaction with the current administration isn’t necessarily drawn along party lines, as the old veterans actually advocate Hillary for president. Most viewers would have great difficulty accepting this attribution of blame, especially when Obama is one of the few politicians trying to construct a social safety net in the form of universal health care. There is no clear villain pictured in the film, just the byproducts of broken system. Consequently, it is not the kind of documentary that offers any impetus or guide to action.
There seems to be a growing fascination with both the white poor and the American South on our cinema and TV screens, one that renders Minervini’s subject matter particularly au courant.1 Considered in this light, the film risks furthering a recent tendency towards the exploitation and fetishization of this demographic; a fascinating object for the voyeurism of an art-house cinema-going elite. While his film undoubtedly looks much better than any reality TV show, it does not necessarily offer anything more insightful. Indeed, when faced with one of the film’s most confronting scenes, in which Mark injects a highly pregnant stripper with meth, it would be hard to dispute accusations that he is peddling misery porn. In defending his films against such charges, Minervini has pointed to the collaborative nature of their production. He claims to avoid exploitation by working with his subjects to determine what they want to show on screen. The viewer will be forced to reflect on this idea as Mark and Lisa have sex for the camera, in a scene that really highlights the extent of access and intimacy the director has been allowed.
The collaborative quality is one of the most compelling aspects of Minervini’s style. In a clear departure from the fly-on-the-wall documentary, many of the scenes appear to be a performance openly orchestrated between the subjects and the filmmaker. People play themselves, but the film falls somewhere on the spectrum between a documentary and a scripted drama. And yet these innovations do not necessarily absolve the project, for this approach works just as well or better without the more exploitative material, as Stop the Pounding Heart would readily attest. The Other Side is certainly the sort of film where just by watching it you enter ambiguous moral territory, and it will thus be well placed at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, where viewers expect to encounter movies that are willing to take such risks, and to raise the kind of questions Minervini’s film poses.