Likely an unintended companion-piece to María Navaro’s fictional El Jardín del Edén (The Garden of Eden, 1994), Belgian-born filmmaker Chantal Äkerman’s documentary De l’autre côté (From the Other Side), from Belgium and France, is about the fate of Mexicans who steal their way across la frontera, the shared border heavily guarded on the U.S. side. Navaro’s wonderful film, from Mexico, coaxed my sympathy for these undocumented aliens. Äkerman’s more disturbing film provides a tragic view of the situation. Whereas Navaro relied on atmosphere and a fluid narrative (for all the Altmanian zigzagging amongst disparate characters), Äkerman approaches us with an artillery of distancing devices aimed at provoking instead a critical response. The greater artist of the two, Äkerman has, accordingly, made a far less amiable film, and a far more challenging and important one.
In Agua Prieta, the film opens with interviews of Mexican souls who recollect and still mourn, as they will for the rest of their lives, the loss of loved ones who managed to get across la frontera, only to perish in the States. A woman and her spouse, in separate interviews, open their hearts about a son of theirs. Their rambling, barely coherent speech provides an index of the enormous depth of their pain and of their interviewer and our surrogate, Äkerman herself. A boy recalls his older brother—in a sense, defying chronology of birth, his tragic twin, because a coin toss decided which one of the two of them would attempt to cross the Mexican-U.S. border. The burden of his life is now his brother’s death. He recounts the fate of a group of undocumented aliens, all freezing and starving in the Arizona desert into which the design of impenetrable fences and lethal patrols had forced them, each of whom, including the boy’s brother, died one by one—a circumstance that echoes state-managed famines in the Third World, and, of course, the massive number of state-engineered agrarian deaths in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. Indeed, later in the film, a sheriff whom Äkerman interviews concedes that the deadly result of U.S. immigration policies and actions, if perhaps not something that U.S. authorities are aiming at, is nevertheless something they cannot help but “anticipate.” By default, then, these are voluminous cases of managed state murder—if you will, a scattered and cumulative holocaust.
Äkerman’s Mexican border towns, in color, are parched, hazily sunlit and largely inert—the visual opposite of the border town in Orson Welles’s great film noir, Touch of Evil (1958). Äkerman portrays the towns in long shots with a fixed, level camera, creating placid scenes of dusty road and still sky. By contrast, Welles relied on angled shots, traveling shots, and closeups to get his ominous black-and-white night world right into our face. Äkerman’s different vision suggests a distillation of grief, anguish and hopelessness among Mexican mourners. The little activity that we see becomes correlative to the socioeconomic doldrums, the listless poverty, that provoke illegal immigration across the border. Ironically, the hush on the Mexican side is prelude to the terrible risk on the other side and the dogging possibility of death. The tales come back of death. Theirs is a plight of desperate people who know the risk.
The vistas in Mexico are extraordinarily calm and lovely (the superb cinematographers are Raymond Fromont, Robert Fenz and Äkerman)—this, a sterling example of Äkerman’s withering irony. Repeated shots of the seemingly endless tall, striated metal fence prohibiting Mexican flight at that point, shot at different times of day, similarly find deceptive beauty there. It’s a gorgeous fence—a prettier thing, say, than the plain and practical American flag that becomes a recurrent part of Äkerman’s rigorous mise-en-scène. Behind this appearance, though, lurks an attitude of hostility, hatred, racism, and a casual American disregard for human life.
Äkerman’s immediately previous documentary—her beauteous fictional La captive (2000), from Proust, arrived in between—was Sud (South, 1999), which found Äkerman in the American south (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas) attempting to fathom white American racial hatred and to record American self-denials on the score. A summary shot is already celebrated: Äkerman’s camera travels the 2½-mile length of road in Jasper, Texas, over which James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was dragged one night in 1998 by three whites who had cut his throat and tied his ankles to the back of a pickup truck. From the Other Side is an extension of that investigation of hers. The hostility on the American side is palpable as well as visible. An ungrammatical and insufficiently capitalized sign presents this exhortation: “Stop the Crime Wave. Our Property and Environment is Being Trashed by Invaders.” (Instead of Invaders from Mars, Invaders from Mexico.) The source of the sign is Arizona ranchers who, consumed by hatred, respond with paranoia as though they were under seige—as though they were victims. With rifles and magnums, these ranchers, vigilantes, have taken it upon themselves to hunt down Mexican immigrants and transport them to the Mexican side of the border. “At times,” Äkerman has explained, “the ranchers have held more than four hundred people on their land, treating them like prisoners of war.” She has also said that what most disturbed her about the ranchers is their identification of the immigrants with “filth” and “hordes”—words, Äkerman discovered in her research, that the ranchers and their apologists use over and over. Ironically, as Äkerman’s film points out, once they have settled, the immigrants, by the inexpensive labor they contribute, immeasurably bolster the American economy, especially given the pressures and demands of globalization. But Äkerman also appreciates the basis for the ranchers’ irrational perspective and the implications of their hateful, self-pitying dehumanization of the immigrants, and it chills her to the bone.
Indeed, in one bravura passage we hear her chill. Throughout the film, Äkerman’s offscreen voice can be heard asking questions of those whom she interviews. Thus it becomes a powerful statement when, dumbfounded into silence, she listens to an American couple spouting the most sincere, awful and frightening nonsense. They speak of the gravest danger that the Mexican immigrants pose: the infliction upon the U.S. of a smallpox epidemic. With a stupendous sense of martyrdom, the couple explain how insufficient quantities of American vaccine will require their own sacrifice so that their grandchildren may survive. Taking our cue from Äkerman’s silence, we find the passage hilarious. (Äkerman remains unseen throughout the film.) We laugh in horror. Like everything else in the film, however, in context the scene is tragic—for both the Mexicans, who are dehumanized and therefore made ripe for abuse, and the white Americans, who, by failing to embrace the humanity of others, lose a grip on their own humanity.
Äkerman has described the fear of Americans vis-à-vis the Mexican immigrants as “[f]ear of the other, fear of his or her poverty . . . and [of] the possibility of contagion.” It is to this that the viral epidemic that the white couple anticipate refers. The emphasis that Arizona ranchers give to the identification of Mexicans with “filth” suggests the fear of impurity that Äkerman, a European Jew, cannot help but identify with Nazism. In Arizona newspapers, she found “talk of mountains of filth, as if the filth was going to replace nature . . . [m]ountains of old clothes, soiled diapers, plastic bottles and bags, dirty papers, etc. There was also talk of poisoned dogs, theft, rape, and violation of private property.” Äkerman has noted that, while the ranchers feel they are in danger of losing their “lifestyle,” the immigrants are actually losing their lives.
From the Other Side is, as I have said, a difficult film. At one point, when she is interviewing a sheriff, Äkerman says something to which the sheriff responds, “I couldn’t have said it better”—and we can’t make out just what Äkerman did say! This isn’t technical shoddiness; this is the way Äkerman presents her film. If we could hear what she said, we still wouldn’t have “the answer” to the problems she discloses. By the same token, at other times we do hear what people say and it’s as if we hadn’t, given how hard it is to follow. This isn’t a smooth film; it’s drawn tight, but it’s also discontinuous and seemingly haphazard in the order of its presentation. There is no mistaking Äkerman’s sympathies, her point of view, but she gives us little else to go on. Her film is so fascinating because there is no easy sentimentality to encourage an automatic response. Rather, we end up investigating silences and ambiguous landscapes, stretching our capacities to glean truth from visionary shards and pieces; and, in the process, we become responsible, active audiences. Äkerman’s film hasn’t a chance to wash over one. Because it never manipulates us, its constant accompaniment is our beating human heart.
From the Other Side is from the other side of many borders, including the one that divides honest, meritorious cinema from manipulative cinema, that is to say, commercial entertainment. Its humanity stands as a rebuke to the kind of inhuman cinema that would play our hearts like a violin, soliciting tears for the hunted, dying Mexicans and thus dehumanizing them in yet another way. As ever, Äkerman (along with Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami) is cinema’s reigning humanist—an exemplar of the Jewish humanism that Adolf Hitler once tried so hard to eradicate. Her film won the 2003 Award of Merit in Film from the Latin American Studies Association.