More than anything, the tapestry of disparate faces that form From the Other Side are defined by two things: their shared humanity and their location. Whether they be on the Mexican or American side, the inhabitants are defined by a close proximity to the border. For the Mexicans, it practically represents the whole gamut of human existence: hopes, desires, loss, sadness, and especially an irrepressible melancholy. For the Americans, a more mixed reaction is produced, as Akerman interviews a variety of Arizonians whose reactions span the range from total, anguished sympathy for the Mexicans’ plight to a wary resignation to outright intimations of violence towards the illegal immigrants. But what From the Other Side illustrates so well is the sense of restlessness and melancholy that every person shares, especially those out in the desert.
The first two-thirds of the movie is devoted to the Mexican people, with particular attention on their ways of life. It is a desolate setting, full of dirt and decay, but signs of life are scattered throughout: a group of children playing sports, people walking as cars drive past, and people simply doing their work. The interviews are even more revealing, as all of the interview subjects clearly try to put on a brave face, but their smiles cannot hide their sadness and their melancholy as they tell stories of missed opportunities, dead brothers or sons, and failed attempts to get to the other side. In Akerman’s style, a single, jarring cut from a barber standing behind a chair to him sitting in the chair without speaking is treated with the same reverence as an unblinking shot of a grandmother who has lost both her son and her grandson as she tries to keep in her emotions. Speaking about the minutiae concerning the past is just as important as a man reading a prepared statement about his entire group’s tribulations; Akerman is willing to observe everything with compassion, as her voice drifts from offscreen with a questioning but gentle tone.
The wall is treated in stark contrast, using a similar framing each time as it seems to stretch on to infinity. It appears in several iterations, sometimes with people and sometimes without, sometimes as a solid wall and sometimes formed out of vertical wooden poles, but each time it is a barrier, not only towards the Mexicans but also towards the viewer. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in two tracking shots: the first begins in a close-up of the wall and makes a 180 degree turn to show a seemingly unending row of houses of different materials and social classes all directly opposite this obstacle, and the second is a bravura 10-minute shot (a few shots before the film crosses into America) that begins on the wall, moves through an extensive line of cars waiting to try to cross the border, shows that the line to cross from the other side is nonexistent, and ends in a Mexican town’s parking lot. In a few shots taken at night, the wall only seems more foreboding, coupled with some nighttime tracking shots almost abstract in the mix of the digital camera and the low lighting and a chilling night-vision shot of helicopters spotting a few would-be illegal immigrants.
From the Other Side, fittingly, moves over to America with a shot of a sign calling on citizens to keep out criminals, a clear sign of Akerman’s sympathies. But she does not merely use ignorant xenophobes (though she does use one such couple who threaten illegal immigrants with violence); a wide variety of people, from a resigned Mexican-American official to a sympathetic Arizonian sheriff to a wary restaurant owner, form a different but very clear sort of mirror to the Mexican people. It is a very different nation (for one, the majority of shots are indoors), but Akerman shows the emotions, whether it be fear, disgust, sadness, or melancholy, without sacrificing her sympathy for the Mexicans. Even when taking into account two troubling shots (one following a Federale and one thermal image taken from the air of a line of migrants), she is never anything but fair-minded, willing to show the whole extent of the American attitude towards the other side.
But Akerman does not end there; she ends with an almost stream-of-consciousness reading of her own words in French, as she remembers an illegal immigrant who had taken up residence in Los Angeles, gotten to know Akerman, then vanished. Overlaid over footage taken from a car heading to Los Angeles, the coda takes on a dreamlike aesthetic, a reconciling of these two different areas by bringing them together under Akerman’s point of view. From the Other Side asks the viewer to consider both sides as they look towards the other, and to observe just how the other half lives.