Director Chantal Akerman on the road directing a scene
FROM THE OTHER SIDE (De l’autre côté) A-
France Belgium Australia Finland (103 mi) 2002 d: Chantal Akerman
When you try to show reality in cinema, most of the time it’s totally false. But when you show what’s going on in people’s minds, that’s very cinematic.
This is an exquisitely filmed and well-directed investigative look at the devastating consequences of the seemingly unstoppable, illegal entries into some sparsely populated Mexican/Arizona border crossings. Alternating between interviews and landscapes, Chantal Akerman uses a minimalist technique, documenting small, cinematic portraits in time that speak for themselves, opening with stories of stark faces of family members who have lost loved ones attempting to “cross over” to the other side, returning frequently to examine the jarringly raw desolation of the dusty landscapes on the dirt-poor Mexican side of the border wall. Later, we hear the opinions of people on the American side, landowners, restaurant entrepreneurs, who are worried about how the “invasion” of illegal immigrants might bring diseases, how they are considered trespassers and are viewed as a constant threat to their freedom, sequences which are ever-so-slightly underscored with the lush piano music of Chopin, a contrast to the utter emptiness “from the other side.” As always, Akerman’s camera silently gazes at the landscape, relying heavily on sound that only occasionally matches the visual image, where she is as interested in the setting as in the diverging views of people populating both sides, revealing evocative images of brutally unforgiving landscapes and stunning tracking shots. Only the second Akerman film to be shot on digital, following an earlier American documentary SUD (1999) that examines a brutal hate crime in Jasper, Texas, a racially motivated murder that occurred when James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death chained by his ankles to a pickup truck driven by avowed white supremacists in 1998, which along with D'Est (1993) and this film comprise Akerman’s documentary trilogy dealing with specific localities. Made only a year after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it anticipates the paranoia and fear of borders that marks our contemporary times and the worldwide rise of nationalism, including rare infrared surveillance footage from a U.S. helicopter hovering over a group of people while they are herded fatefully toward the border, where their movements are scrutinized and tracked, with gunsights fixed on their target. No names accompany the faces of Mexicans captured in the film, as if to underscore their anonymity and invisibility in terms of the long history of Mexico-U.S. border-crossing, where individuals may change but the phenomena of poverty and desperation that drives migrants from their homes does not, while America simply refuses to acknowledge its economic dependence on undocumented laborers, which includes a long-term, symbiotic relationship with cheap and easily exploited, undocumented labor, the same relationship it once had with slaves centuries ago, as both are byproducts of capitalism, where migrants are not stealing American jobs, as alleged, but almost inevitably work off-the-books in non-existing positions well below the allowable wage scale for American citizens, where no one else is clamoring for these underpaid jobs.
Akerman’s meditative documentary captures life on the Mexican-U.S. border, speaking to residents of Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town in the state of Sonora, where undocumented immigrants risk everything to cross into America, while also speaking to residents in Douglas, Arizona on the American side, interviewing a Mexican consulate, the sheriff, a restaurant owner, and a few locals, where hostile residents fiercely advocate keeping the migrants out, displaying signs on their property that read, “Stop the Crime Wave! Our Property and Environment is Being Trashed by Invaders!” Like the former Berlin Wall, or the border of Israel and the West Bank, an immediately recognizable wall along the border symbolizes the diametrically opposing interests, with a barren ghost town on one side, built upon dirt roads, with a few open businesses, and plenty of ramshackle houses, many of which are empty, reflecting few opportunities and an unending poverty that has plagued this town for generations, while the other side reflects the ominous presence of heavily equipped police vehicles continuously scouring the border, using the latest in militaristic technological equipment to help discourage and dissuade the migratory flow. Between 1994 and 2007, there were around 5,000 migrant deaths along the Mexico–United States border, creating heightened concerns, where this film examines the culture emanating from both sides. Using durational filmmaking dotted with minimal or even casual action, where the film explores a stream-of-conscious relationship between inside and outside, mental and physical, including a fluid geography of wandering states of mind, though captured by a fixed camera. Akerman’s approach is to inhabit a region, where her lingering shooting style dwells on instances of pause and transition, reflection and anxiety, perhaps suspended between a before and after, in the unsettling time of a transitionary moment, though what we inevitably see is a historical aftermath of hundreds of years of conflict reduced to a sequence of images where the director breathes her own life onto an existing landscape, making a contemporary urban panorama, an impressionistic mosaic of what has been described as a “distant intimacy” fused with an analytic detachment that is necessary to create empathy. Regardless of the distance traveled to get there, in Akerman’s films the journey of discovery inevitably turns out to be an interior journey.
The first half of the film is set in Mexico, where Akerman’s rendering of this itinerant life uses a unique cinematic language, whose syntax moves between static and tracking shots of desert landscapes, a dilapidated town, and the border wall, where Akerman interviews a 21-year old Mexican whose older brother recently died in the desert when his group lost their way, an older couple in their 70’s that recently lost their son and grandson, while also interviewing people who plan to or have already attempted to cross the desert into the United States, including a group that reads a prepared statement about their unique hardships and the inevitable prejudices they’re about to face, while thanking the filmmaker for food and for giving visibility to their situation, all coming from humble origins, with extremely modest goals, “We come from nothingness and to nothingness we will return.” Akerman encounters men, women, and adolescents who are constantly being persecuted by the American immigration services when they try to escape misery. If they manage to cross the border alive, they end up being pariahs, exiles, and exploited. A common aspect of every Akerman film is that she absolutely refuses to provide background information, and instead her film aesthetic is a visual contextualization, offering viewers an opportunity to see the world differently through her European eyes, where in her avant-garde documentary film NEWS FROM HOME (1977), for instance, in shot after shot of different city streets in New York City, each meticulously balanced and composed, they start resembling similar architecture in Brussels, her native country, where building size, age, deteriorating color, placement in neighborhoods, and their relationship to pedestrian foot traffic is surprisingly the same, always showing life within confined spaces, and allowing viewers to figure out what it means. The human commonality is that we each carry our own interior world around with us wherever we go, representative of the mindset of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1975) and her confined space, where the domesticated interior is neither liberating nor comfortable, but represents a kind of unease, where anxiety is a byproduct of everyday life and accompanies the human form wherever it goes, even crossing oceans and continents, as this interior shadow self is inescapable, defining who we are and what we stand for. In examining the two sides, each reflective of their own unique cultural attributes, which couldn’t be more different, yet the landscape, the emptiness, the mountains, and the desert is nearly identical. Geographically it’s indistinguishable from one another, all part of the same earth, but nations have constructed a border, and with it comes a visualized image of what that border represents to them.
In this arid land of dirt, between mountains and desert, what director Chantal Akerman finds is the tragedy of this space, a tragedy that becomes readable by the distance between us and them. For Mexico, it’s an obstacle one must get across, to get to the other side, where life will presumably be better, offering more opportunities, yet for America, it resembles the American frontier of 100 years ago, where they still have the covered wagon mentality about homestead life on the frontier, where outsiders become the “other,” in other words, not one of us, where they are perceived as dangerous and inhuman, sometimes depicted as lawless, savage, and life threatening, where Mexicans are described with inflammatory words like “filthy,” “dirty,” “horde,” and “invasion,” frightened by a perceived disorder that will corrupt order and an impurity that will contaminate purity, which to the filmmaker, a European Jew, must recall how Jews were similarly perceived in the 30’s by the Third Reich. With Americans enacting their own laws with total impunity in a war against Mexican immigrants, devising more stringent border patrols, cutting off the safer routes, leaving only the largely rural sections of vast, uninhabitable deserts, survival instincts kick in where residents must do whatever it takes to survive any confrontation, which includes eradicating the “other,” where it’s not out of the ordinary for ranchers to hunt down illegals with rifles and magnums. According to Akerman, “At times, the ranchers have held more than four hundred people on their land, treating them like prisoners of war.” Both are captives of their own cultural upbringing, where they are subject to a certain set of beliefs reflective of the neighboring community that has been handed down to them through the years, which includes fears, anxieties, and long-existing prejudices. While Akerman’s pacing is slow, it is always highly sensitive, feeling eerie and mysterious, chosen as the 4th best picture of 2002 by French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Cahiers du Cinema: 1951-2011. This is a film that continuously gets better and continues to provoke, lingering in the mind even days afterwards, largely due to such a formidable, avant-garde style that gets under your skin, where viewers may experience an emotional surge as the film progresses, as the sum of all information from both sides sinks in, reflecting a deeply entrenched humanity on each side of the border. Particularly stunning is one seemingly endless tracking shot of cars stacked up at the American border that follows one car after another, while with a single turn, the shot continues onto a barely-lit street of nearly empty Mexican establishments, continuing on into the darkness. Both sides view the wall from such differing perspectives, as the Americans are staunch defenders of their own freedom, while the Mexicans see it as a path to freedom. Akerman maintains her objective distance throughout, interviewing Mexicans in Spanish, Americans in English, returning to her native French language only when the film builds to its highly poetic conclusion, where the filmmaker herself in a haunting dreamlike sequence describes the fate of one Mexican woman who disappears after a seemingly successful border crossing, who briefly leads an indistinct quiet life but then hasn’t been heard from since, who may be alive, who may be dead, yet she is someone who may no longer claim either “side” as her own, but who has become, instead, a non-being, a persona non grata, an invisible ghost of those who have been described as the disappeared, “los desaparecidos,” "De l'autre côté" (Del otro lado) (fragmento) (2012) - Chantal Akerman YouTube (4:49).