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'The Other Side' Shows a World Turned Inside Out

This film offers art that is alarming, life that is ruined, rage that is ongoing.

The Other Side

Director: Roberto Minervini
Cast: Mark Kelley, Lisa Allen, James Lee Miller
Rated: NR
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-02-18 (UMB Film Series)
"Drugs, alcohol and violence are some of the most effective primordial ways of self-defense, of protecting oneself. Of course, they all stem from fear."

-- Roberto Minervini

"You never know what the fucking future brings." The room is dark, the camera close, and Mark and Lisa are busy. Both addicts, they're smoking what looks to be crack with another guy whose long hair and glasses frame a soft face. You learn later that he's under 18, during a conversation about voting -- Mark can't do it because he's a felon, the kid is underage -- but here, he looks less young than unshaped.

Mark, by contrast, looks hard, his skin darkened by sun, tattooed and gnarled. When you first see him in The Other Side, Mark's on a roadside in Louisiana, naked and passed out. He doesn't have a context: the scene just before this shot of Mark shows a couple of guys with guns, stalking through the woods, wearing camouflage, patrolling or maybe hunting. Mark appears as if from elsewhere, deposited on earth.

He wakes and walks, the camera follows behind him as he makes his way back to the shack where he finds Lisa and the kid with glasses. By the time he gets there, Mark's wearing a t-shirt and a backpack: you don't see where he's picked them up.

Such shifting in time and circumstance is disconcerting. Roberto Minervini's film, premiering at the University of Massachusetts Boston Film Series on 18 February, where it will be followed by a Q&A with the director, doesn't only observe Mark and Lisa and a Louisiana militia group, but also works with them to tell their stories. Mark serves as the primary focus, appearing in a series of scenes where he voices and acts out his desperation and frustration, selling drugs, drinking, engaging in explicit sex with Lisa, breaking into a local school with the young man wearing glasses. Here they contemplate the fundamental unfairness of US institutions, from education to voting (noting that a felon, like Mark, can't vote) and blame a most obvious target, President Obama, who, Mark lectures while standing in a classroom, pointer in hand, "did nothing for this stupid country but make the fucking blacks proud."

Mark's performance here is as broad as anywhere else, when he shoots up a stripper before she goes on stage or when he injects a needle into Lisa's breast. Elsewhere, he appears less wound up, but also playing a role, steering a canoe through the bayou or sharing a rudimentary picnic with his family. "I like to work," he announces, asserting his similarity to you, "I like to take a shower, take a bath." Here his young niece declares her dismay with an abstract system, echoing her elders: "I wish Obama would do something about the rest of the world, too, beside the White House and himself he's so self-centered."

By film's end, such sentiments take more concrete forms. The militia group members practice invading a home and taking a prisoner, then assemble to take turns stating their goals (to take back their freedom, to protect their families), then set up a dummy with an Obama mask in a car they shoot up with automatic weapons and explode, the crackling flames as much a celebration of destruction as the raucous party they throw themselves. Here again, the film observes and appears to take cues from its subjects, its frame compositions impeccable, camera movements laid out as poetry.

Like Mark's family -- his dying mother, his various "siblings" (including anxious drug clients, who declare their love and thank him for letting today's payment slide) -- the militia members, in other sections perform their love of family as a form of outrage. That they share their rage with the filmmakers so apparently openly suggests they also share a sense of trust, a relationship that recalls Actress, find truths in fictions. But the effects are changed -- and charged -- when the subjects whose participation is framed by addiction or illness or even youth, as in Toto and His Sisters or Left on Purpose. In these films, subjects perform, as in all other films, but your relationship to those performances is shifting and tweaked. You can't feel easy watching.

The Other Side cranks up these shifts and tweaks. It offers art that is alarming, life that is ruined, rage that is ongoing. The film resists naming, reading, and judging. It asks you to imagine an other, other side, a world that is abject, unmoored and frightening, one where your view is turned inside out, not fitted to what you see.


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