A life-sized cardboard cut-out of John Wayne looms over the interior of an organized militia compound. One of the founders promises new recruits that the Second American Revolution is inevitable. When the United Nations arrive, he warns there won’t even be time to flee back to their homes to gather provisions. He asks the men what day it is.
A feeble voice responds, “The Fourth of July?”
Furious, the leader shouts, “Only ONE of you!? Again, what day is today?”
A jumble of heartened voices: “The Fourth of July!” “Independence Day!”
In the back John Wayne stands tall.
It’s the little details that hit the hardest in Roberto Minervini’s new documentary The Other Side—an exploration of extreme poverty in northern Louisiana where the dispossessed and unemployed form communities of drug [ab]users and paramilitary anti-government militias. The beer burps in-between high-powered rifle shots at an old car stuffed with an Obama mannequin. The pornography plastering the strip club bathroom walls as the pregnant dancer shoots up. The omnipresent sound of coffee percolating in ruined trailers; when they smoke meth it’s impossible to tell it apart from the gurgling of the crack pipe. The overweight son embarrassed looking away as his dad refers to Obama as a racial slur with one breath and promises to teach him how to make drugs with the next. The film is a hypnotic tone poem of American destitution. Don’t call it beautiful, because it isn’t. Don’t call them noble, for the people in front of the camera know they’re not. They’re tired and angry, furious at the world and exhausted by their own helplessness.
The Other Side operates as a piece of ethnographic cinema. Minervini, a Houston-based Italian filmmaker, cut his teeth with a trilogy of documentaries set in Texas before moving eastwards to Louisiana. He brings to the film the necessary eye of an outsider. He refuses judgements where most Americans would not have been able to keep silent. How dare that one drug dealer share a crack pipe with his son? How could the director not rebuke their horrific racism? Shouldn’t he notify the authorities that a pregnant woman is doping? Perhaps Minervini’s otherness helped him achieve his truly astonishing level of intimacy with his subjects. He has mentioned that the people he met were eager to be recorded, but does that explain how he managed to get so much candid footage of them cooking drugs, making love, and conversing their non-prosecuted felonies?
In-between the racism and grotesqueries of their lives, odd moments spark up to remind us that they are in fact human and not caricatures. One good-old-boy, shirtless and drunk, expounds on how Hillary Clinton would make the best president because women are more capable leaders than men. One militiaman chastises America’s hypocrisy in invading Middle Eastern countries that have existed for tens of thousands of years when we aren’t even a quarter of a millennia old. In one of the most touching scenes, a teenage girl begins an impromptu performance of “O Holy Night” at a family Christmas dinner. Halfway through she forgets the words, falters a moment, and picks right back up with the words from the first verse.
A portrait emerges of a culture soured by society. They cling to conspiracy theories and guns because the fear that the government wants to conquer them is more comforting than the reality that it has abandoned them. They make and sell drugs to each other (frequently on credit) because it’s one of the only industries that will put money in their pockets. They hate Obama because he’s an extension of a government they think hates them. It’s clear that what these people need isn’t cultural re-indoctrination, but economic opportunities. They need money for medical care so they won’t have to wait around for their family members with cancer to die. They need money so they can afford decent educations for careers other than day labor or the military. They need money so fathers can give more than a single used barbie doll to their daughters for their birthdays—maybe then the hatred and pain and abuse will stop. But until then, they will suffer and suffer and suffer.