Directed by Oliver Stone
At Angelika Film Center
Runtime: 78 min.
Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border sells itself
as a “road trip” across five countries in South America, but the contentious
director spends most of it stuck on Hugo Chávez and the current state of Venezuela. In
fact, the film should have been subtitled: “My Love Affair with Hugo.” The final result of this ode to Chávez
proves that, just because you can make a blockbuster, zeitgeist-shifting film, doesn’t mean you grasp
the fundamentals of crafting an intelligent documentary. Tariq Ali‘s name is attached to the project to give it a whiff of academic credibility and Leftist appeal, but it’s unclear how involved Ali was in the making of the film.
Stone begins by including a clip from FOX News showing on-air
personalities flippantly speaking about coca production, pronouncing it cocoa (like the beverage),
and laughing at their mistakes on-air. It speaks to the ignorance and xenophobia of most North Americans and seems like a Michael Moore-esque
setup meant to reveal the misrepresentation by America’s hegemonic media
powers (there’s even a clip of Moore himself railing on a news show to reinforce the point). But the clips and original footage presented fail to
get at essential biases in North American media since the documentary ultimately only promotes Stone’s own bias. He’s going to
show you how Chávez, the problematic president and former military man, is a
radical leader, a la Simon Bolivar, who will incite a revolution and bring
together the countries of South America. It’s such a Lefty ideological
message, skimming over the complexities and history of the region, that it’s
astounding that the film has opened in Spain (where there is much more institutional knowledge and support of South America) and is receiving support
from many of the featured presidents in the film.
For those not as familiar with the geopolitics of our
neighbors to the south—who simply think of cocaine, samba, maids, earthquakes and
military coups—I suppose the film could be something of an introductory lesson
in how the media manipulates and influences American impressions of people who speak Spanish and live south of the United States. Chávez has affected many changes in Venezuela and Latin America, of course, but should the white man from the
north with a Hollywood pedigree consecrate him? Oftentimes Stone seems to want
to fill in as the patriarchal figure, showing up to right the wrongs
of his countrymen. He comes off, however, as bored, smug, condescending and with a vague
grasp of what he’s actually attempting to do.
After he finally leaves off the Chávez hagiography to fly
down to Bolivia to interview president Evo Morales, Stone suffers from altitude sickness (and
looks like crap). He decides it will be cute to ask Morales to chew coca leaves with him to help relieve his altitude discomfort. In a funny bit, Morales says that Stone’s bag of leaves is no good and has an assistant bring a better one. The scheme is obvious: Let’s do “drugs” with a sitting president on camera. But it comes off as a juvenile gimmick, especially since the unprocessed coca leaf acts only as a mild narcotic—like caffeine. When he then asks Morales to play some soccer, the president rolls his eyes and does so. It’s a patronizing move on Stone’s part. Would he have the cajones to ask President Obama to play a game of pickup basketball? Doubtful. He later embarrasses himself again when he asks President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina how many shoes she owns. She mocks his question and declines to answer, refusing to humor him. He isn’t able to have much screen time with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the most important and fascinating of the new guard of South American leaders. It’s a serious gap, showing his lack of journalistic interest. He should have tried harder to make sure Lula was included—or scrapped the project.
A glut of stellar docs reach a mass audience these days, both with
obvious biases as well as thoughtful meditations on a variety of controversial ideas, which only makes Stone’s documentary appear that much more amateurish. It feels like an extended 60 Minutes segment without the probing questions or comparable production quality. Yes, Stone was given unprecedented access and has the resources to execute a difficult project—one that does need to be done. But to cram so much complicated history and politics—not to mention unwavering admiration for a controversial figure such as Chávez—into a slight documentary is egregious. Stone may think he’s an expert because he’s spent so much time talking to Fidel Castro of Cuba over the years, but everyone in South America would be better served if someone had stopped him from making this film.