Dir. Oliver Stone. US/Spain 2009. 78 mins.
In South Of The Border, a companion piece to Stone’s Looking For Fidel and even, in a way, Michael Moore’s fellow-Venice-screener Capitalism: A Love Story, the director’s attempts to rehabilitate Venezuelan premier Hugo Chavez from the drooling jaws of Fox News and the “private media” result in an entertaining if lop-sided pamphlet. Its eventual charm owes much to the roster of expressive South American heads of state whom Stone interviews, with the director himself a soft core to his own piece.
Like Moore, Stone has had enough of the type of capitalism which has resulted in heavy-handed American meddling across South America
Stone’s central thrust – Chavez as a misunderstood man of democracy and the people – is weakened however by the film decision to steer away from the president’s recent successful referendum to remove term limits on his presidency (even if Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner does warn of the dangers of this).
Taken at face value, Border has a bright future in festivals, thematic arthouse and certainly ancillary; it should appeal greatly to the South American disapora. But Stone’s somewhat eager approach (“the energy here is incredible!”), polemical presentation and lack of detail will make it a tougher sell to more politically aware audiences. South of the Border stops short of hagiography – but only just.
Like Moore, Stone has had enough of the type of capitalism which has resulted in heavy-handed American meddling across South America, from CIA-backed caudillos and coups (one attempt to remove Chavez still rankles) to the punitive monetary policy pushed by the IMF, particularly with the Argentina peso-dollar peg. (Moore is actually featured in an early sequence as a guest on Fox News).
Stone is also contemptuous of the “private media” in the US and in Venezuela which has demonized Chavez – predictable shots of dumb TV anchors and frothing right-wing guests ensue – and heads off to Caracas for a rehabilitative chat with the man himself. Chavez is an outspoken man – he once told the UN that he could smell sulphur in the pulpit following a speech by the “devil” Bush – and he gives Stone some good mileage, despite the director’s gentle approach (enough to make Fox News look probing). Scenes of Chavez riding a bicycle with Stone behind the camera exhorting him to think of his childhood in a palm hut come off as just plain weird, though.
After a touch of bonding between the two former soldiers – and a trip on Chavez’s jet and the back of his motorbike - Stone heads off for a whistle-stop tour of South America’s emerging left-ist front, and the picture perks up considerably. From Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to Argentina’s Kirchners, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, the outgoing Lula da Silva in Brasil and even Raul Castro in Cuba, Stone gives voice to the oft-misunderstood indigenous, left-leaning movements (the so-called “pink tide”) emerging across the continent – some are closer to Chavez than others, but this film is content to highlight similarities and skip on the context. Likewise, Stone spends no time with the working classes in any of these countries, particularly Venezuela, where they are shown either adoring their leader or frothing at the mouth as a result of media misinformation.
Voiceover, by Stone, is a languorous counterpoint to the Latino energies depicted onscreen.