The Other Side

By Josh Leong | Drama
2 orphan brothers face the reality of never being adopted.

Like many kids in Ethiopia, Abel and his younger brother have spent many years growing up together in an orphanage in Ethiopia. But on the cusp of adulthood, Abel is soon to “graduate” from the institution, leaving Kiya behind, as well as his warmhearted mentor Mihret. Abel will also face life on the streets, where he will likely lean on crime to make a living and face everyday threats of violence and uncertainty.

Feeling bitter and rebellious, Abel struggles with the reality of never having been adopted — a fate that many Ethiopian orphans face, in a country where five percent of its total population are orphaned and official policies closed off international adoptions in 2018. He will also face discrimination because orphans are regarded with suspicion and shame.

Kiya is still hopeful that he will find a family, but Abel still tries to prepare his brother for a more realistic future. When a prospective adoptive couple threatens to break the brothers apart, their future as a family hangs in the balance.

Writer-director Josh Leong’s compelling social drama is at heart a story about the bonds of family, deftly weaving a sensitive, resonant story about the love and loyalty between brothers while shedding light on a difficult social reality that far too many children face in a far-off corner of the globe.

Many social dramas can veer into the didactic, where characters become puppets that espouse ideas and symbolize positions instead of feeling, thinking and acting like real human beings. But the excellent writing and directing avoid that trap, delineating with great care the emotional journey of two young men facing a precipice in their life — one that they’re often helpless to change, but must adapt to, with little resources to draw upon.

The filmmaking, too, has an immediacy and liveliness, from the handheld camera to editing that juxtaposes scenes of Abel’s life for maximum surprise and energy. The narrative momentum, though, is character-driven, with Abel making choices that speak true to his fear and desperation. Though the format is short, Abel has a multifaceted complexity here, clearly loving towards his brother yet pragmatic of what he needs to do to prepare himself for his future transition.

He’s brought to life by an excellent performance by actor Ethan Herisse, who was last seen in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning limited series When They See Us and who powerfully evokes the struggle of dealing with his inner bitterness and anger while confronting his brother’s innocence and hopes. His love for his brother and his choices on the street are at odds — and put him in confrontation not just with himself, but with the person he loves the most.

What makes “The Other Side” particularly potent as a piece of storytelling is not just its powerful portrayal of a difficult reality for many children in Ethiopia, but also how it becomes a heartrending portrait of hope: how hope is lost, but also how it is held onto, even with the most fragile and tenuous of realities that are beyond these children’s control.

The ending of “The Other Side” honors this tension by not tidying up its narrative questions with neat, simple answers. A question mark hangs over Abel’s ultimate fate, but that’s also true for too many children in Ethiopia, who exist in an overburdened system serving far too many orphans. The only hope that remains is love, but the question is whether it is enough to surmount what will likely be considerable obstacles.

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