Letters from the Other Side brings up one of the perennial questions about documentary filmmaking: how much should you involve yourself in your subjects' lives, and to what extent? Should you run the risk of potentially affecting the outcome of your film, or is it more important to help people you encounter while shooting? Some filmmakers make a serious attempt not to have much effect on the stories unfolding around them, and don't employ voice-overs or let themselves be heard in their film. Others, meanwhile, are themselves a big part of their stories, the best-known example being Michael Moore. Heather Courtney, director of Letters from the Other Side, obviously decided to help—in fact, the stories in the documentary hinge on Courtney's ability to deliver video "letters" back and forth between women in small Mexican towns and their male relatives working in the United States.
Letters from the Other Side eloquently manages to present stories that show the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. and the unexpected side effects of recent American trade laws and border-tightening regulations. Courtney's documentary examines three family situations: Eugenia, whose husband left for the U.S. years ago when she was pregnant with their youngest daughter, and whose three sons have followed their dad to find work; Maria, a farmer whose two older sons crossed the border, and who is worried that as she and her husband grow old, no one will be left to work their own land; and Carmela and Laura, whose husbands died on their journey to the U.S. in a smuggling truck.
The women all have to learn to fend for themselves; to earn money to feed their families and hopefully keep more family members from emigrating to the States. Maria starts a sewing cooperative for women to make extra money when they aren't working on farms. Eugenia receives cactus plants from the Mexican government, expands the plants into a huge garden, and sells pickled cactus and cactus soap and other products at local fairs. Carmela and Laura receive donated equipment from the government to start a bakery, but are given only some of the materials they need, and can't afford to buy the rest ... nor are they ever shown how to use the equipment.
Courtney also visits the men in the U.S. and sends video messages from them to their families in Mexico. The men can no longer visit their families once or twice a year; the increased border security makes travel between the countries dangerous if not life-threatening for them. And yet Courtney is free to visit the family members on both sides of the border, repeatedly, with no difficulties. On the other hand, the U.S. consulate would not grant visas to the women in the film to visit Austin for the SXSW screenings.
Letters from the Other Side doesn't hesitate to seek out the political changes that have caused problems for these women. The documentary notes that the number of undocumented workers from Mexico in the U.S. has increased since NAFTA went into effect. Another unforeseen consequence of NAFTA is that instead of Mexican goods becoming cheaper in the States, U.S. produce and goods are now cheaper in Mexico than their Mexican equivalents. Corn farmers like Maria are becoming more scarce, and find it increasingly difficult to earn any kind of living from the land.
While the film doesn't disguise its political leanings, it isn't blatantly manipulative or preachy. Some viewers might consider Letters from the Other Side to be left-wing propaganda in favor of changing immigration and trade laws. If it is propaganda, it is certainly effective without being heavy-handed. Courtney organized a fundraising event for the women and also took up a collection after the screening, and I noticed a number of people crowding around the donation basket. The stories of these women and their families are compelling, and Letters from the Other Side presents their cases simply and quietly.