Wednesday, 4 August 2010

'South of the Border' review: Chavez seems like a nice bloke...

Following on from his 2003 documentaries on Fidel Castro ('Comandante') and Yasser Arafat ('Persona Non Grata'), Oliver Stone journeyed into South America, meeting leaders from six countries, for his latest film 'South of the Border'. Focusing primarily on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the documentary looks at the negative and biased portrayal of these leaders in the American media. In this film, through interviews and use of archive news footage, Stone seeks to counteract a number of the claims made by media outlets, presenting these leaders in a more positive light.

Perhaps this might not seem like a admirable cause to many, with Stone seemingly replacing one one-sided viewpoint with another, but when you are told (via Stone's narration) that much of the media within Venezuela is partisan and anti-Chavez - controlled by oil companies and special interests - then this documentary seems not only justified, but necessary.

Disappointingly, the "interviews" themselves (with Chavez as well as six other leaders including Raul Castro) are really little more than friendly chats between Stone and the subject. During these meetings he invites Bolivian leader Evo Morales to play soccer with him and asks the Argentine President Cristina Kirchner how many pairs of shoes she owns, whilst he encourages Chavez to ride around on a small bicycle. These moments are intended to humanise people so often demonised, but they just made me feel as though Stone were wasting these people's time. I don't mean to say I wanted to see Stone take an adversarial tone at odds with the point of his film, but just that I would have preferred to hear more of the political arguments (but maybe that's just me). I also worry that this approach limits the appeal of the film, perhaps making it preach to the converted. Somebody less sympathetic to the subjects than I might feel that this approach robs the film of credibility. Which is ashame, because there is good stuff here.

The strongest aspect of the film comes in the narration written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, which is generally supported by really interesting news material, ranging from familiar bad source Fox News to The New York Times. These clips are faintly disturbing, demonstrating the factually inaccurate reporting and (in one clear case) manipulation of video editing prevalent in media reporting of Chavez in particular. There is also a lot of unsettling evidence that points to (surprise, surprise) CIA involvement in a number of fairly recent attempted coup d'état (as recently as 2002), as well as a lot of evidence which points to the role of the IMF as a body for controlling foreign economies in the interests of American capitalism.

The thing is that when Stone isn't asking his subjects to behave like buffoons, in the name of being media friendly, they actually all come across really well. All are eloquent and reasonable and all seem genuine and engaged with their people - particularly the poor. Chavez drives himself around and talks happily to citizens who approach his modest jeep. The scenes in which we see the leaders interact with each other are probably the best and it is these which represent the biggest coup for Stone. The Cuban veteran, Raul Castro, rebukes Stone for suggesting he is perhaps a loftier figure than the likes of Ecuador's relatively young Rafael Correa, saying that they are all equals and that all has their own ideas to bring to the table.

'South of the Border' is not a flawless piece of documentary film making. It is, however, a necessary opposing viewpoint to the one which we are usually offered - in regard to Chavez in particular. Probably my favourite aspect of the film is that, like the equally polemical work of Michael Moore, it contains a lot of information which could be depressing and yet manages to end on a note of optimism. In this case it is the hope that these South American leaders can bring the South American Continent together in a way which could see it forever independent from American political interference.

Furthermore, Tariq Ali goes as far as to suggest that this new left-leaning South American influence might eventually find its way into North America. To me that sounds like a fantasy. But it is one I was happy enough to indulge in. Perhaps the most heartening message was that given by Brazil's centre-left Lula da Silva who said that he has no interest in fighting with the United States but simply wishes to see his country treated as an equal. If nothing else, Stone's documentary is a good equaliser, launching a fierce counter-attack on the right-wing media. In my view, a laudable goal achieved with modest success.

'South of the Border' is out on limited release in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC. Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse is showing it on the weekend of the 7th and 8th of August.

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