With: Tariq Ali, Hugo Chavez, Bart Jones, Gregory Wilpert, Eduardo Porter, Scott Wilson, Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo, Lula da Silva, Raul Castro, Rafael Correa.
Narrator: Oliver Stone.
By JAY WEISSBERG
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the jocular knight of grassroots democracy in Oliver Stone’s paean to Latin American leftism, "South of the Border." A predictable compendium of Fox News clips on one side and peasants glad-handing their leaders on the other, the docu offers little genuine information and no investigative research, adopting a Michael Moore style even more polemical than Stone’s earlier docus on Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. Helmer's name guarantees cable play and Euro exposure, but the lack of in-depth exploration means conclusions will only be swallowed by news-phobes averse to thinking for themselves.
"South of the Border" at first seems like a natural pairing with Moore’s "Capitalism: A Love Story," and the two were presented on consecutive days at the Venice Film Festival. But despite their similarly unsubtle ways of conveying information, the two helmers are miles apart: Where Moore worships a sentimentalized Average Joe, Stone kneels before King Power. Completely seduced by left-wing strong men, Stone rarely has time for the Everyman, unless they’re the human equivalents of Potemkin villages, happy folk making music and cheering on their great leaders.
Stone’s thrust -- that Intl. Monetary Fund policy, backed by the Bush administration, was designed to keep Latin America subservient to their big, bad neighbor up north -- is largely inarguable. Venezuela’s economic disparities, thanks to its enormous oil reserves, are among the more obvious examples of self-interested U.S. policy, dictated by the need to control access to cheap petroleum. Yet Stone doesn’t bother to actually explain how that’s worked for the last 100 years, preferring that auds simply trust his words.
To an even greater degree, Stone demonizes the "private media" -- presumably, the helmer prefers state-controlled news outlets -- whose name he cannot mention without a sneer. A full panoply of predictably ridiculous Fox News and CNN clips are presented, all speaking of Chavez as a bogeyman in contrast to the nice, fleshy leader Stone cozies up to on the presidential jet. (Of course, Chavez really is a funny guy, but then again, so was Kruschev.) In Stone’s bipolar world, shades of gray don’t exist, and Chavez must either be the dictator of Condoleezza Rice’s warnings or an angel of democracy.
Inconvenient facts, such as Chavez’s referendums to hold on to power beyond constitutional limits, are ignored, though even Chavez’s ally, former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, warns that it’s problematic for one man to represent the revolution. So enamored is Stone with his subject, who has metaphorically dressed himself in the guise of South American liberator Simon Bolivar, that the director travels to neighboring countries to speak to their leaders, all with the idea of countering U.S. propaganda. But there’s something embarrassing about the way he coddles up to these figures, asking Chavez what time he went to sleep, or kicking a soccer ball around with Bolivian President Evo Morales.
While the poor are frequently mentioned, Stone isn’t interested in taking a camera into the slums to interview them or speaking to aid agencies working with the indigent. It’s the men in power (and women, such as Argentine President Cristina Kirchner) who entice Stone, as already seen in his docus on Castro. George Orwell would have had much to say on the matter.
Within this enterprise, some credit must go to Tariq Ali, a generally more reasoned commentator who acts here as both co-scripter and talking head. The jumble of interviewed pundits, flashy news excerpts and Stone’s relaxed chats with heads of state will certainly work best on the smallscreen. Music fosters a triumphalist image of Chavez, complete with noble drum rolls to accompany the march of his personality revolution.Camera (color), Albert Maysles, Carlos Marcovich, Lucas Fuica; editors, Alexis Chavez, Elisa Bonora; music, Adam Peters; sound, Juan Carlos Prieto; line producer, Steven Pines; associate producers, Tara Tremaine, Suzie Gilbert, Victor Ibanez, Jean Pierre Marois. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 6, 2009. Running time: 78 MIN. English, Spanish, Portuguese dialogue.