Al otro lado: To the Other Side
by Linsday Nicoson, Grand Valley State University
The 2005 Mexican film by Gustavo Loza, Al Otro Lado, is a great coming of age film that tackles modern issues such as emigration and its effect on the family. The film was Mexico’s official selection for the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Loza introduces us to three children whose fathers emigrate in hopes of finding work on the other side. From the child’s point of view we se how each one handles their father’s emigration in a unique way. Throughout the film, the tangible presence of water represents the intangible barrier that separates the family.
The movie begins in Mexico with the father of young Priscilliano (Adrian Alonso) scolding him for swimming in a nearby murky lake and warning him not to do it again. His father tells him of a mythical princess Erindira who was abducted and in her misery, drowned herself in the local lake. At this point, the film ominously depicts the longhaired princess disappearing into the distance through the thick lake fog. Priscilliano’s father tells him that the lake is dangerous and that he must avoid it at all costs. Priscilliano begrudgingly follows his father home, and promises not to swim there again. Soon after this, the small boy’s father leaves the country in search for work across the border. Personally, I couldn’t help but feel attached to this boy, small in stature but big at heart, who sets forth to track down his father and bring him back to his grieving family. In his search, he winds up at the local bar, where he couldn’t be more out of place. The little boy with big brown eyes and a killer smile wanders through the bar until he stumbles upon some familiar faces. His drunken grandfather boasts stories of his own travel to the US and mistakenly leads the boy to believe that by swimming across the local lake he can make it “to the other side.” Despite his father’s warnings, the boy heads back to the forbidden lake. He brings along his sidekick, lovingly nicknamed Fatso. The two set out in an abandoned canoe, but things take a turn for the worse when it begins to take on water. Before long the two boys hopelessly take to the water struggling to swim to shore in the dark fog when they are separated and Priscilliano begins to drown. In a moment of clarity, a small feminine hand (presumably that of Erindira) reaches up through the water to guide Priscilliano back to safety.
We are next presented with the more complicated story of Ángel (Jorge Milo) a youngster living in Cuba who has never known his father. He cherishes a photo of his supposed father and aspires to travel to America to bring him home. He and his closest friend naively plot how exactly they’ll persuade him to grab his briefcase and come back to Havana. Ángel’s mother works the streets in an attempt to provide for her aging father and growing son, but the occupation upsets the family as much as it supports them. Ángel and his friend can’t wait any longer and head to the beach to begin their voyage to America. They create a raft from barrels and the scraps they can find and toss the makeshift vessel from the pier. The boys, with nothing but the shirts on their backs, jump on the raft and head to sea. What they don’t expect is the magnitude of the waves endlessly crashing down on their modest raft. The relentless waves toss them from their disintegrating raft and the boys must struggle for their lives. I’ll momentarily digress from the plot to point out the excellent cinematography here. I’ve never come close to drowning, but this scene perfectly depicts what it must be like. We can hear nothing but the sound of waves crashing and gurgling gasps for breath. The camera appears to be getting tossed around and alternates between above and below-water shots. I found this to be one of the most convincing scenes of the entire movie. But back to the plot, Ángel is lucky enough to safely make it back to shore. His friend, however, does not fare as well. Ángel, with his clothes still dripping wet returns home in a shocked yet somber state of mind.
The third story, the story of little Fatima (Nuria Badih) of Morocco, portrays a determined ten year old girl who must find her father in Spain and return him to the family he left. The young Fatima is not content with her mother continuously telling her that her father would be back “one day” and takes it upon herself to locate him. One night, while her mother and younger sister are still asleep in their one room home, she packs a small backpack and heads for Malaga. Along the way, she encounters a human trafficker who promises her a ride to Spain in his friend’s boat. She naively accepts his offer. In a secret night expedition across the sea, Fatima has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. Upon arriving in Spain she is luckily spared from the human trafficking ring by a somewhat moral ringleader, Esperanza (Carmen Maura), whose name ironically means hope. Esperanza believes the girl is too young to be of use to her, and in a state of guilt, agrees to help Fatima find her father. So the unlikely pair (that doesn’t even speak the same language) takes off to find the father that has been gone for seven years. They eventually find him at a construction site and Esperanza quickly takes off. With no other option, the father brings Fatima back to his apartment and is forced to introduce her to his European girlfriend. The two females are shocked to meet one another, as neither could fathom that the other had even existed. Fatima is shocked not only by the girlfriend, but by her apparent inability to ever be fully dressed. I felt this contrast was done especially well, as the audience doesn’t even see Fatima’s hair throughout the entire movie, yet we are introduced to this lanky blonde in nothing but underwear and a tee, which turns out to be her wardrobe through most of her debut. Loza’s depiction of this woman through Fatima’s eyes was a priceless addition to the film. In the end Fatima and her father make their way back to Morocco where he will be forced to make a decision.
The prevailing similarity in these stories is the foreboding body of water separating father from family. Each child has a unique relationship with his or her father. Priscilliano has never spent a day without his father until he unexpectedly leaves; Ángel has likely never met his father; and Fatima hasn’t seen hers since she was a toddler. Though each story has unique family dynamics, each child feels compelled to cross this body of water to find his or her father. The water is representative of all that divides the family, whether it is social, economic, or personal. Though the movie is filmed from the perspective of the children, it also shows clearly the struggle that each mother goes through to raise a child on her own. Both Priscilliano’s and Fatima’s mothers are left to raise children alone while Ángel has both a mother and grandfather who nearly plays the role of father (though Ángel doesn’t recognize this). Though less pronounced, it is clear that the expanse of water that separates father and mother causes hardships for parents as well.
The recurrent idea of drowning in this expanse of water is certainly not an accident. To me, it is a metaphor that represents the drowning, choking feeling of a child in search of a father. It is an overwhelming presence that makes it hard for the child to survive alone. The fact that both Priscilliano and Ángel nearly drowned is representative of the pain these children feel in being fatherless.
This film depicts the side of immigration that we never really see – the other side. In America, we are constantly being presented with immigration, but we never really consider that the other side of the coin is emigration. We often fail to recognize that families are split and that people are left at home to cope alone with a missing family member. Loza, who was also the scriptwriter, did an excellent job in constructing this movie to portray the other side.
I’d also like to commend the cinematography crew: Jerónimo Denti, Patrick Murguia, and Serguei Saldívar Tanaka. The film was interspersed with some amazing landscapes from Mexico, Cuba, Spain and Morocco. The cinematography was admirable, consistently shifting from the child’s point of view to abstract close-ups to landscapes. I personally loved when we were presented with a shot of a child’s feet hanging from the bed that was turned into an artistic masterpiece. Another commendable feature was the excellent choice of music, ranging from American to Moroccan and everything between. Without being cheesy, the music constantly complemented the most poignant scenes. My accolades go out to Hector Ruiz Quintanar, director of music for Al otro lado.
Overall, the 2005 film by Gustavo Loza did a brilliant job at using water to illustrate the effect of immigration on families. Each of the three touching stories was well done without feeling overdone and I enjoyed each one. The subtle themes, a few of which I’ve briefly touched upon, were highlighted by the music and photography crews. I certainly look forward to another inspiring film by Loza.