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Oliver Stone’s new film, “South of the Border,” documents the (in)famous director’s lovefest of a tour across the major Leftist countries of South America. His main focus is Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela—or its dictator, depending on whom you ask. The thrust of this short, very one-sided film is simple: everything you think you know about Chavez and his comrades is wrong. Let Oliver show you the real story.
And show he does. Stone spends most of the film chatting with Chavez and constructing an elaborate explanation for how and why Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina and other countries have ended up getting such a bad rap in America. Stone argues that the U.S. has exerted a type of neo-colonialism on these countries, through its biased media reports and collusion with international oil companies, who are bent on sucking these countries dry without any thought for their inhabitants. Stone also indicts the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, for what he sees as its role in forcing these countries into insurmountable debt. Listening to him discussing these issues with Chavez can give you a feeling of deja vu; they seem to parrot the same phrases back and forth to each other, even as they must pause for a harried translator to keep up.
Needless to say, everyone Stone talks to in his film agrees with his assertions, and not once is a truly thorny issue raised. No one discusses, say, freedom of the press or human rights issues under the current Chavez regime, and nor does Stone extend his economic analysis to Venezuela’s current massive inflation rate—not, one could argue, necessarily a sign of progress. Stone even gleefully includes a clip of Chavez at the UN calling George W. Bush “the Devil” from a few years back. I have to admit, it’s hard not to just want to join in on the fun.
But the fun of the film is precisely what obscures its total lack of objectivity or serious intellectual rigor. It is certainly fascinating to get to be up close and personal with not only Chavez, but the presidents of Bolivia, Argentina, and Cuba; their casual interviews with Stone are the sort of thing you’d never get to watch on CNN. The film’s production values are huge; the cinematography is sumptuous, and found footage, news clips and live video all flow seamlessly into one another. It’s easy to leave the film thinking about the idea of revolution in a romantic haze.
However, if this were truly a documentary rather than an overgrown opinion piece, we’d be treated to at least a brief summary of the other side of the argument, and perhaps we’d be able to form our own opinions about Chavez and his contemporaries. As it is, Stone’s film purposefully doesn’t give us enough information to allow us to make up our own minds—it’s a dictatorship, not a democracy.
“South of the Border” premiered last year at the 66th Venice Film Festival, and is currently available on DVD from Cinema Libre Studios.