My friend Brad, a programmer, was the one to tell me about Roberto Minervini. I didn’t know a thing about Minervini, but Brad knows something of my predilections. This was days before the mass shooting in Orlando.
Minervini’s latest film, now available from Syndicado on iTunes, begins with men wearing camouflage and carrying rifles, creeping or crouching in a wood. They’ll ambush the narrative a bit later—or perhaps the narrative will ambush them. The central protagonist of The Other Side (2015) inhabits the same Louisiana community as these mysterious figures spied in the film’s eerie opening moments, but hasn’t the time, means or disposition to join in their training games. Mark (Mark Kelley) first appears waking naked in the scrub alongside a country road. Mark will come to interact with his sister and her nephew, to whom he’s a kind of criminal mentor, as well as his girlfriend Lisa (Lisa Allen), and his mother, who is terminally ill, and we come to understand that Mark is an ex-con and a drug dealer, though he occasionally picks up day-labour. We see him in peeler bars and gloomy rooms where he smokes crack, makes love or speaks of his struggle to keep it together. Mark is roughly charismatic and arrestingly sympathetic, never more so than when he’s with Lisa, who in their first scene together declares that she wishes she could take all his pain away. Mark is also anxious and full of rage, some of it racially charged. It’s Mark’s sense of alienation from the governing powers, his stark disenfranchisement, which forms his only direct link to backwoods militia who will dominate the tail end of The Other Side.
Minervini was born in Italy, educated at New York’s New School and lived in the Philippines before settling in Texas, where he directed three features before moving one state over to make The Other Side. If you follow cinephile culture more assiduously than I, you’ve probably heard of Minervini. His films have screened in Venice and Cannes and have won several awards. They are a truly remarkable leap forward into the wilderness of hybridism. Many of today’s most interesting filmmakers blur the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction cinema, but Minervini does so with an immersion and vibrancy that feels like revelation. The Other Side, at once beautiful and raw, isn’t using documentary techniques to make fiction or vice versa; the film is documentary and is fiction simultaneously. Mark and Lisa are playing themselves and being themselves. They’re letting us into their lives and acting out their lives. They’re allowing us to feel both compassionate and critical of the very communities many of us are inclined to disdain or dismiss as the United States becomes ever more divided during this fraught election year.
The Other Side was made before Trump entered the picture, and it is fascinating to hear some of its subjects—all of them older white men—profess their faith in Hillary Clinton as the ideal next president. But as Minervini takes us deeper into Louisiana’s heavily armed militia culture, an almost palpable air of isolationism and paranoia comes to the fore, and you know these guys, like the NRA, will become fervent Trump supporters, because their bottom line is protecting their right to bear arms, ostensibly in order to protect themselves and their brethren. They do not see themselves as aligned with the broader spectrum of American life. And, in their defense, they don’t necessarily have reason to. If you want to get a sense of that broader spectrum—and of some of the most exciting, unnerving filmmaking being done in the United States—see The Other Side. And come to understand just how apt its title is. V