South Of The Border (2009)

South Of The Border

Über-director Oliver Stone’s latest documentary film South of the Border offers a provocative glance at the US media’s take on Latin American politics.

South of the Border

It’s like America, only South by Laura Bennett

Never afraid to court controversy, Oliver Stone focuses South of the Border on Venezuela’s charismatic yet polarising president, Hugo Chávez. Regularly demonised in the US media as an anti-American communist dictator with a dubious human rights record and much too close for comfort to the land of the free’s own backyard, Stone takes it upon himself to provide an alternative view. Initially concentrating on Venezuela, Stone’s film ultimately morphs into a road trip around the continent, stringing together informal photo-op meetings with the leaders of seven nations supported only by a skeleton film crew.

Stone sets out his stall from the opening credits. Pummelling home the power of his message, the director’s own narration rushes over insistent montages of twisted and irrational US TV news footage, cut together in a Michael Moore-esque style to seem as idiotic and illogical as possible. The implication is clear – the American public has been deeply misinformed, media distortions paint Latin America as volatile, unstable, a threat to US national security and the every day life of its god-fearing citizens. With the dedo firmly pointed as the scaremongering Bush administration, familiar ground for Stone after his recent satire W., parallels are swiftly drawn between the fear whipped up by a post 9/11 media frenzy and the, now revealed to be highly dubious, justifications for the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps best left to Michael Moore himself the early part of South of the Border fails to flow and is at its most successful as Stone follows Chávez around his beloved country. Casting himself as a descendent of the liberator Bolivar, President Chávez dismisses US foreign policy as a game and makes no bones about being compared to Saddam Hussein by former president Bush. In contrast to these bullish moments, Stone also skilfully sets Chávez up in more off-duty situations: out and about in his old neighbourhood, meeting his people and relaxing in his office.

Best actor in a supporting role goes to Evo Morales, President of Bolivia. With almost as much screen time as Chávez, Morales kicks about a football with Stone and, in a self-consciously surreal scene, supplies him with the best quality coca leaves this side of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Later stops on Stone’s odyssey involve face time with Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), plus a 2-for-1 deal with her husband and former president Néstor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Raul Castro (Cuba). Each head of state is at ease and comfortable – Cristina Kirchner cheekily rebuffs accusations about the size of her shoe collection while Rafael Correa jokes that he would be more concerned if the US media were complementary about him.

Critical salvos have been volleyed at South of the Border from all sides, accusing Stone of providing a one-sided portrait of Chávez, of failing to consider the views of his detractors and those reported to have suffered at his hands. Stone stands firm; his film is not intended as a biography of Chávez, nor is it an in depth analysis of the geopolitical map of Latin America.

Stone refers to the film as a 101 introduction, a chance to show the American people a different side to the story: that a socialist revolution is underway in Latin American thanks to a wave of left leaning leaders. Argentine President Christina Kirchner puts it succinctly “for the first time in the region, the leaders look like the people they govern…..the face of Evo is the face of a Bolivian”. Rather than courting foreign, US based, investment they are ploughing their nations’ profits and resources back into their own economies, a strategy that Stone offers up as the real motive for the US’ exaggerations and embellishments.

Clearly intended as a clarion call to a new US president who has so far been slow to act on policy towards Latin America, Stone also hope that South of the Border will go some way to mobilising the Hispanic community in the US to bring about a change in attitude. Having failed to pull in the audiences in Latin America itself, however, a real revolution may yet still be a long way down the avenida.

South of the Border is released in the UK on 30th July 2010

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