Always second guessing, Judge William Lee thinks he should have order the other side with his meal.
"If the United States refuses to give illegals a chance, and doesn't appreciate the value of their manpower, then God forgive us, them and us. Because some have it all and some have nothing."—Jose Sanchez
Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) does not make conventional films. Her movies—whether experimental, documentary or fiction—seem designed to test the viewer's patience. Those who know what they're getting into, and those willing to devote some time and attention to a different movie experience, will appreciate the documentaries on this two-disc set from Icarus Films.
Akerman employs seemingly interminable long shots with a stationary camera. Sometimes the camera will track left or right, looking out from a vehicle, to take in great lengths of scenery. To observe that her style is deliberately slow would be correct but to think "nothing is happening" would be wrong. Unlike almost any other filmmaker, Akerman really makes the viewer feel the location where she is filming. Just the amount of time spent looking at a scene causes one's senses to absorb the details of the environment: the way shadows shift, the sway of branches, and the distant background noises. The eerie stillness invites contemplation and we sympathize with the inhabitants of this land: What is it like to live here? What would I desire in such a place? How would I cope being trapped here?
From the Other Side considers the plight of desperate illegal migrants from Mexico attempting to cross into the United States. Since measures were taken to secure the crossing points around San Diego, would-be migrants are forced to cross through the deserts of Arizona. One law enforcement member on the American side admits the increased death toll was not unexpected. The boundary between nations is marked by barbed wire across an uninviting landscape or unsightly sheet metal fencing that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The film hears from Mexican families that have lost loved ones in the crossing. A few lucky individuals survived, either after being caught and returned or forced to abandon the journey, to tell their stories. Still, others await their opportunity to go and have put their fate in the hands of "coyotes" that have charged a small fortune to guide them through the desert.
North of the wall, a mix of Americans voice their sympathy, weariness or suspicion of the illegal migrants. One rancher attributes the dual threat of losing jobs and the spread of smallpox to Mexicans but there isn't anything obviously sinister about his character. He's just a simple-minded man with a big fear of outsiders.
Akerman's deliberately slow camera is also meticulously framed for beautiful compositions that capture a sense of the wide-open vistas or surprise with quiet observation of everyday squalor and diminishing hope. The DVD does a good job of preserving the accomplished cinematography with a clean transfer that exhibits strong colors.
The audio presentation is serviceable but not especially noteworthy. Interview subjects speaking directly to the camera sound the best in this standard stereo mix. Akerman, or her translator, utter hardly any words in the interviews but their voices are barely understandable when they do speak off-screen during the location shoots. The majority of the film is in Spanish (with English subtitles) as most of it is shot on the Mexican side of the wall. The interviews in the United States are heard in English and a final voiceover by Akerman is spoken in French (with English subtitles).
The lone supplemental on the first disc is a five-minute clip from Akerman's From the East.
The second disc features another visit by the director to the southern United States in South. In Jasper, Texas, James Byrd Jr, an African-American man, was beaten and then dragged to death behind a truck by three white men. Akerman puts some context to the crime by taking her time in exploring the decaying town and quiet back roads. Interviews remind us that the African-American Civil Rights Movement is still recent history for some residents who remember the racist oppression of their childhood. The film attends Byrd's memorial service to witness a ritual of hope rather than anger and sadness. Comments from another interviewee, describing the strategy whereby white supremacy groups insidiously take over Christian churches, is chilling.
The movie was originally planned as a meditation on the American south but it changed focus in the wake of the brutal murder. It is a disquieting look at a community still struggling with racism. The recollection of the crime is sobering and it casts a shadow of deep sadness over the proceedings. Ultimately, the film sees a glimmer of hope in the progressive attitude of the black community and their belief that the fight is slowly being won.
The DVD presentation of South isn't quite as good as the first feature but it is acceptable. The video footage definitely looks like it was captured with equipment a technological generation earlier. Fine picture detail suffers from what looks like a lower resolution source and colors look slightly off in some scenes. These are not entirely detrimental to the film but they are noticeable at first. Stereo sound is fine most of the time but there is some clipping during the songs at the memorial service.
Akerman's unique style takes some getting used to—and some viewers will simply not tolerate it—but it's worth the effort and patience. The slowness of her films allows time to think about what was just heard in an interview and to drink in the settings. It really cements the reality of the places she visits and the people she meets. Her lens makes the marginalized and ignored more than abstract issues.
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