South of the Border ***
Directed By: Oliver Stone.
Subtlety has never been one of the words anyone would associate with Oliver Stone. His brash, in your face style is one of those things admirers like myself like about him, and what drives his many detractors absolutely nuts. As a narrative filmmaker, Stone is responsible for some of the best films of the 1980s and ‘90s, although he has struggled a little bit in the past decade or so. When Stone decides to make a documentary – which he on the subjects of Fidel Castro and Israel – the directorial pyrotechnics may not be there, but they are undeniably the work of the same filmmaker. Stone’s documentaries make no effort to be fair or balanced or neutral – he has a point of view, and you’re going to find out what it is.
His latest documentary is South of the Border, which looks at the socialist revolution in Latin America – started by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela a decade ago, and spreading through countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Stone travels to all of these countries and meets their leaders – and then stops off in Cuba on his way to talk to new President Raul Castro as well. Stone fawns over them, painting them as socialist revolutionaries, proper descendents of the Cuban revolution (which hurts his case, because unlike the other leaders, Castro has never been elected – it truly is a dictatorship).
Stone fawns over the leaders, which can wear thin at times. I really didn’t need to see him play soccer with Bolivian President Eco Morales. He also never really pushes any of the leaders – doesn’t question anything that they have done, and quickly dismisses against arguments against them without proper support or backup.
Having said that though, South of the Border is a fascinating movie, if for no other reason than it paints an entirely different view of these leaders than the American media has used – they have been called drug addicts, brutal dictators (although all of them, with the exception of Castro as noted above, were democratically elected), enemies of America, compared to Hitler and worse. Stone paints them as men from humble beginnings – which in almost all cases, they are, who want to throw off the yoke of American imperialism, and fight against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who impose restrictions on them. They want to be treated as equals by America – not as their subordinates.
These are legitimate aims, and as long as the people in these countries elect them as their leaders, they should be able to do as they see fit. When Chavez was ousted – for all of a day – many in America praised the overthrow, before having to take a step back when he was reinstated, and admit that the military should not really be overthrowing the democratically elected leaders of their countries – no matter how they may be behaving.
Stone begins his movie with snippets of the Western media – mostly from Fox News – criticizing Chavez and the rest of the leaders – he also liberally sprinkles in their thoughts throughout. And that is why I think that South of the Border, despite its obvious flaws, is a valuable film. It may not offer a proper corrective of the news media – it swings far too wide the other way for that to be true – but it gives the leaders a chance to speak unencumbered by the commentary supplied by Fox News and the rest of the American media. Whether you believe what they say or not, isn’t really the point – the point is that they are given the opportunity at all. I think that a great documentary can be made about these leaders, and the changing political landscape in South America. In order to be that documentary, the filmmakers would have to look at both the positives and negatives of all of these countries. If Fox News paints them as evil supervillians and Oliver Stone paints them pretty much as saints, I can guarantee you that the truth, as always, lies somewhere between these two extremes.