A pregnant stripper shoots up; a woman in an Obama mask gives a blowjob in front of a cheering crowd at a militia rally; a junkie couple make love and meth on camera. These are but a few of the striking, disturbing scenes in Roberto Minervini's latest film, The Other Side, which premiered in New York on April 8, as part of Lincoln Center's documentary showcase Art of the Real. The Italian-born, Houston-based filmmaker's access to Bayou hedonism is unrivaled, but so too is his respect for his on-screen collaborators. Minervini avoids romanticizing the suffering of his addiction-riddled subjects—especially the central ones, Mark and Lisa, a local dealer and his girlfriend—while still capturing the beauty, darkness, and anger that pervades small-town Louisiana around them.
The Other Side is starkly divided in two. The first half centers on Mark and his family, his girlfriend Lisa, as well as his mother, grandmother, sister, and niece. The second half abruptly shifts its focus to a white militia in the area, documenting training sessions and a rally. A sense of disenfranchisement and a hostility toward Obama pervade both halves. Together, the film connects personal frustrations with a sociopolitical climate, which feels particularly relevant right now.
Minervini met Mark and Lisa through his last film Stop the Pounding Heart (available on Netflix), which tells the story of a teen romance between the homeschooled daughter of a godly goat farmer and a rodeo bull rider. The teen bull rider's dad, Todd, is Lisa's brother. Minervini explained he has access to film these people because his relationships with them don't end when production stops. When I recently Skyped with him, he told me there were characters from both films downstairs at his house hanging out.
VICE: When did you get the idea to make The Other Side into two parts?
Roberto Minervini: It came along the way. In the story of Mark, there was an underlying anger toward the institution. I thought I could go work with the militia [to further develop that idea]. I've known them for a while, and I've been invited to document their actions for the past two years. That's where I thought I could create a link that was perhaps conceptual and political.
What do you think about the ethics of showing people shooting up in your films? How do you make sure that what you show doesn't cross the line?
That's one of the big ethical questions: How do you portray people who cannot portray themselves? The answer is that it must be a collective decision. Ultimately we have to define boundaries together.
[Mark and Lisa] are aware of the effects of shooting up or having sex on camera. They also believe in the bigger mission and vision of the film about showing the dysfunctional aspects of American society. It's about questioning the family institution and creating a larger political debate.
It didn't seem like there were very many boundaries, though. There's lots of sex and drugs on camera.
Whatever is in the film is within their boundaries. Some boundaries were harder to overcome—emotional boundaries, like men breaking down, falling apart emotionally, and showing their vulnerability. That's where they wanted to draw the line. As an example, when Mark breaks down in the end [of the first half], making this ultimate confession to Lisa and admitting that he's looking for salvation in jail, after shooting that scene, he told me that he was done shooting. Mark told me, "I cannot go on with this. It feels too vulnerable."
The second part of this answer is that I trained as a photojournalist. My goal was to become a war photo reporter—I tried to freelance during the Thailand coup, and I failed at that career. One of the most important teachings I received was to choose an image that can tell a story that is way bigger, broader, wider, deeper than what I'm showing and to take full responsibility for it.
The pregnant girl [shooting up], for me, is so important because of the social condition that people inherit, especially in America where there's not a lot of class mobility. For me, it's key to show the inheritance, that [this condition has] been passed along generations. Maybe this image will scare some people off, but hopefully I can shake things up politically with the discourse that this image will trigger. My intent is definitely to create a bigger discourse than just victimization, suffering, and addiction.
What do you think Mark and Lisa's motivations were for wanting to participate with you?
I think one motivation, which is perhaps human nature, is just wanting to be heard and seen. Also, having a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have the spotlight on them and to be taken seriously. Scaring people away and shocking people is part of their performance. They are aware of the effects of shooting up or having sex on camera. They also believe in the bigger mission and vision of the film about showing the dysfunctional aspects of American society. It's about questioning the family institution and creating a larger political debate. They believed in that, and they became players.
Mark's story wasn't just a portrait of depravity and suffering. There were many moments where I was actually quite jealous of how much love he had in his life.
The truth is that I went into this film with my own broad set of prejudices and judgments that I had to fight against. I remember vividly that when I started working with the drug addicts and I started seeing their love being physical and verbalized, I was thinking that this story was going to be a disaster. How am I going to convey the idea of pain when there is so much love? I was falling into a particularistic idea of suffering and falling into the idea that I could be a savior, in a way. Then I saw that they could provide love for themselves. They didn't need me or the elite, which I inevitably belong to. I realized I didn't know shit about love and suffering and how they can go together.
Do you think you can get better access because of your foreigner status when you're making films in America?
Perhaps. I've been in America for fifteen years, and I am an American citizen. I bring a European perspective, and I think it is welcome by people because I am not part of the system, in a way. At the same time, I live here. I'm here to stay. I don't go anywhere to collect a bag of footage and bring it to my French producers.
As we're talking, downstairs having a coffee are people from The Other Side, from Stop the Pounding Heart , and the family of Lisa and Mark. They know me. They know where to find me. We hang out. That's a big factor for establishing trust. I'm a foreigner but less of a foreigner than another American [who might leave after production]. It's crucial. There would be no film without the pre-condition of living here.
I read that where you grew up in Italy, there were parallels with poverty and addiction. What was it like where you grew up?
We grew up in a very difficult situation, [where] at fourteen you're quitting school and going to work as a teen making only $1,000 a month until we died, without any mobility. At that age, working and making money, people fell into addiction and hard times. I grew up with these difficult images. I was six, and I remember not understanding, thinking everybody was so tired because everybody would fall asleep standing up, not knowing that everybody was on heroin. So many of my friends died, medicating the nothingness, that sense of void. We inherited this condition. Drugs were the only way to soothe the pain of seeing the oblivion in front of us.
I was saved randomly by the fact that someone told me that by studying computer programming I could get to the big city, so I did. I didn't go to work at fourteen. I went to high school, and then I became an insurance salesman, and then I even went to college later on.
What attracted you to come to the States and to make films here?
I left Italy for Spain looking for jobs because I spoke Spanish. I was a singer for a punk rock band, stuff like that. I never looked back, and I just started traveling all over until I fell in love with a woman. In just a few days, I was in New York City, not speaking any English. That's just how I live my life. I do things first, and then I think afterward.
I thought that the United States was the cancer of the world, and I thought I was going into the belly of the monster. However, I had overlooked completely the human factor of the people. The American people are why I am not going back to Italy, because I can't abandon them. America taught me the most important lesson in my life, which is that you can talk with an "I" statement. I can speak for myself, and this is how I can become intimate with people whereas in my country you speak with a "you" statement, which is very confrontational. I'm very sure that coming to America saved me. It would be hard for me to leave America. There's a certain gentleness in this country that scares the whole world.
Your film made me think about the fact that America is so big and people have very distinct cultural identities in different states. If we didn't have propaganda, people wouldn't feel united as a country because it's really so fragmented in a lot of ways.
There's a big disconnect between the people and the institutions that push people to find their own messages of unity.
I find that the type of thing people are feeding themselves with is often really contradictory because it's anti-government but pro-America.
That's one of the biggest [messages] of the militia. "Let's bring down the government for America." That's their vision, but I get it. I get why they think that way.
In your film, you have these poor white people blaming all their problems on black people, even though poor white people and poor black people have a lot of the same interests.
Even geographically we were working in a white ghetto that was across the street from a black ghetto. They were constantly reminding us that the other ghetto was worse, ultimately because they are blacks, and so it's just worse by default. They felt reduced for being compared to black people, and it became their antagonist. It's the biggest wound of America, you know. It's just never healed.
Watching this film, I realized how much backlash there's been with Obama as the president. It's insane how much racism there is.
Yes, Obama is black, and some of America wasn't ready for that. And that's pretty much a fact. It's very important to me to create discourse where there's no message from the film. I don't want to add footnotes to something by labeling actions as racist or politically charged. It's very important for me that this film creates fear because fear is the biggest door toward vulnerability. That's where there can be intimacy and discourse.
I want this film to go beyond labeling because racism might be a way to explain the reaction toward Obama, but it's also important to consider that perhaps there are other reasons. The anger for the institution comes from people who feel used by the government. I think it is a very important reflection on today's America. I mean, Trump might become the next president, but to dismiss Trump as just a racist lunatic is definitely counterproductive. It's a very elitist and dangerous position to just discard these people as a bunch of misfits.