Movie Review: South of the Border

Oliver Stone defends Hugo Chavez against the media

The overwhelming questions posed by this documentary are neither political nor sociological, though of course, they should be, Instead, I find myself wondering just exactly what is Oliver Stone’s agenda?

I’ve never had to ask that of a Stone film before, but then, when fictionalising the destructiveness of war, or warning of the dangers of capitalistic greed using Michael Douglas as your conduit of choice, it’s never exactly been hidden in the subtext. And unless I’m missing a beat, it’s not really hidden here. In following the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Stone has made a stubbornly anti-American documentary. Which means he’s one of two things – a resolute truth teller (depending on which side you’re on) or a guy who’s gunning for one hell of a patriotic backlash.

Either way, he affords us the chance to indulge in one of our favourite activities – smugly enjoying being smarter than propaganda-swallowing Americans. The documentary opens with a dumb as dirt Fox news reporter blithely proclaiming “Apparently there are dictators out there….” before telling us that Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, is the most evil one of all. Certainly, the Bush administration did Chavez’ public profile no favours, once even going so far as comparing him to Hitler.

Stone’s attempt to uncover the truth about Chavez rests on reading between the lines of US news coverage and his film is rightly peppered with excerpts from US TV news that insists, over and over, that Chavez is a malevolent force against democracy. Viewed in such a pre-prepared, bite sized ways there can be no doubt that there is some dastardly propaganda taking place against Chavez, and by default, as Stone proves, the whole notion of South American democracy. And while the idea that the US taking such an interest in Venezuelan politics because they are the third largest exporters of petroleum in the world might seem obvious to those familiar with the subject matter, to the average American, this might come as a bit of a shock – another of Stone’s intentions, no doubt.

For Venezuela and South America, the election of Hugo Chavez, and his reinstatement after the unsuccessful coup to remove him in 2002, is a triumph of democracy in a region historically crippled by the weight of Washington strong-arming. Stone sheds an sinister light on the International Monetary Fund and it’s bullying ways, and scrapes back the influence of the media – both the US and also the private media in South America, which should have been able to stop Chavez’ popularity – but failed.

The most compelling footage is that of Chavez himself, who comes across as an affable, often zen-like man, and certainly, if the word dictator is to be used, a benign one who sincerely fights for the rights of the poor, having grown up in a slum himself. If there’s another side to this argument, Stone isn’t showing it – and why should he? The US media takes care of that, leaving Chavez and Stone free to convince their audience that, as in Iraq, the real issue here is oil, and media manipulation.

It feels imperative to have your own opinion of Chavez’ government and agenda, and of the truth behind the ongoing power struggle between North America and South America before you watch this, or you run the risk of swallowing everything Stone says. Not that he’s wrong, and the facts – extreme poverty reduced by 70% over 3 years – speak for themselves. But Stone’s gentle battering ram documentary style smacks of a history lesson given with a very obvious enjoyment in his own clear-sightedness, and that’s always an incentive to form your own opinion first. Aside from that, it’s a brilliantly made film, as one would expect, articulated by a master filmmaker and a brave and admirable pioneer for democracy.

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