The great Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman turned her attention to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2002’s From the Other Side, a documentary/tone-poem hybrid that’s undeniably moving. Akerman’s patient, observant approach — immortalized in cinema history in her stunning 1975 work Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — makes for a fascinating, yet unsentimental film.
Akerman frames her subjects in fairly wide shots and allows long takes to unspool as the men and women being interviewed collect their thoughts and memories. These uninterrupted recollections feel immediate and vital, unadulterated by edits or confrontational camera work.
Interspersed with the interviews are long shots — some static, some methodically tracking — of the various locations surrounding the interviewees. Cars weave through the border line-up, a dusty road is desolate in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, a massive sign urging residents to “Stop the Crime Wave” perpetrated by “Invaders” sits alongside the highway in Douglas, Arizona.
The first part of the film sees Akerman on the Mexican side of the border, talking to a number of people who have lost family members in an attempt to find work in the United States. One man tells a chilling story about a group of immigrants stranded in the desert, unable to find their way out, their numbers slowly dwindling as heat and dehydration winnow the group.
This first half remains almost purely personal, not political; the focus shifts when Akerman crosses the border into the states, but not quite in the way one might expect. Without indulging in obvious moralizing or sermonizing, she reveals the paranoia and hypocrisy that drive many of the decisions and opinion surrounding immigration.
Some of her subjects live up to the stereotypes — a couple goes on and on about the dangers of illegal immigrants, with the man indulging in some disturbing fantasizing about what would happen if one failed to understand his “No Trespassing” sign. And yet some are downright surprising — the most cogent, thoughtful analysis of the situation comes from an Arizona sheriff, who condemns tactics used to force immigrants to sneak through harsher terrain. Not exactly Joe Arpaio, this guy.
From the Other Side doesn’t attempt any comprehensive look at immigration, a thorny issue that seems to have become even more contentious in the decade since the film was released. Rather, Akerman lets her subjects speak for themselves, and both the stories and painful pauses illuminate an entire world.
From the Other Side is available on DVD directly from Icarus Films. The disc is featureless.