In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore posits that Americans shoot each other with unrivaled frequency due to a hair-trigger culture of fear, fed by a vicious history of racial conflict and the grisly horrors of sensationalized TV news. It’s an argument easy to illustrate and difficult to prove, but Chantal Akerman’s documentary From the Other Side—which fixes its steely gaze on the desert fortress between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Mexico—chips in plenty more exhibits for the prosecution. A highway sign puts drivers on terror alert: “Stop the Crime Wave! Our Property and Environment Is Being Trashed by Invaders!” At the memorial for a border officer killed by a Mexican, a colleague asks God for backing in “this daily war” against the “enemy.” And Moore would salivate over the gun-toting yokel couple who speak of 9-11-01 only strengthening their resolve against the penniless immigrants who might dare to run through their yard—the Mexicans, it seems, “could take over.” Quite the contrary: The cheap labor provided by these sinister foreign agents helps keep their hostile host country competitive in the global economy.
Akerman’s characteristically patient, pensive approach elegantly accommodates her reportorial responsibilities: She switches between wordless stationary shots—of barren, windswept roadsides or Mexicans kicking pebbles at the border wall—and interviews with sheriffs, migrant advocates, and relatives of those who didn’t survive the northern passage. The filmmaker does leave herself open to intimations of quid pro quo when her crew buys dinner for a group of immigrants, who then appear with evident discomfort before her cameras. Like Moore, Akerman glimpses something she can’t comprehend, and crosses a line to see it better.