Oliver Stone is legendary for his excellence as a filmmaker. “Wall Street”, “JFK”, “W”, “Nixon”, “Born on the Fourth of July” are just the tip of the iceberg. He is equally known for controversy as to alleged historical accuracies or implications of conspiracy theories he espouses in many of his “fictional” scripts. But the tables turn when you start talking accuracy, information and education in his documentaries, as they are inscrutable, and never moreso than with SOUTH OF THE BORDER.
What began as a sit down with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, turned into a well researched, educational, interesting and thought provoking documentary focusing on the preeminent leaders of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Cuba - Hugo Chavez, Lula da Silva, Cristina Kirchner and her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, Evo Morales, Fernando Lugo, Rafael Correa and Raul Castro - their hopes and desires for economic independence from the International Money Fund, control of their countries’ own resources, stronger regional ties and their driving desire to create a better life for their peoples. Through up close and personal interviews, and education by way of extensive factual information about actual events that have transpired over the years - now reported without the taint of yellow journalism and negativity - we are privy to a “new” purer history “south of the border” that gives pause to the disinformation machine of conglomerate media and politics, opening our eyes and proving yet again, the truth of that old adage - you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Stone first met with Hugo Chavez in December 2007 during the Chavez’ humanitarian mission to negotiate the release of political prisoners held by FARC. He clearly remembers being struck by Chavez’ charisma and dynamic persona - something contrary to Chavez’ portrayal in the American media as being a “dictator, a bad guy and a menace.” Calling on producing partner Ferdinand Sulichin, the two began to develop a film centering on the media and disinformation being reported from South America and particularly as to Hugo Chavez. Bringing in renowned writer and economist Mark Weisbrot, a script was fleshed out and Stone returned to Venezuela in 2008 to meet with Chavez. But as often happens, the original intent took on a different tone once the cameras started rolling and the scope of the project expanded, turning this into a road trip across South America and into Cuba.
A wonderfully intuitive interviewer, Stone elicits very personal aspects of each of these leaders. Thanks to informal settings, unscripted questions from his heart, two simple cameras and a microphone, we see a great humanity and likeability in each of these foreign powers. Stone found that “many of them had seen “Commandante” which allowed [Castro] to speak. It wasn’t really edited. I asked him a few questions. Some of them could have been taken the wrong way. He answered them and people saw that. It wasn’t edited in a funny way. It took me a long time to make that movie. They had that film to go off of. They knew that Castro had been pleased with the result. First time he had been on worldwide television in a decent way. And Chavez saw me. And he is who he is with whoever. I brought down BBC Steven Sacker with hard, hard prosecuting attorney type questions. [Chavez] was the same man. He says what he wants. He said, ‘Don’t take my word for [conditions in South America]. Go see the other guys.’ And I did. And each one, because Chavez had told them, ‘Talk to my friend. He’s my friend. You can say whatever you want’, they are all free and easy. They have to watch what they say, I guess, for their own internal press because they’re always on their case, but everyone of those opinions was given freely.”
Even more telling are humorous moments or quips that give great insight into who these people are. What really shines through in the interviews is the passion and caring for their country and their people and their individual and collective desires for a better life for their citizens. And these leaders are not idiots. They are knowledgeable, well spoken and even if self-educated, are by no means third world country bumpkins.
But beyond the personal expressions, the factual material is just that - fact; much of which is in direct contravention to what has long been reported by mainstream media. Stone had a crack team of historians, researchers and fact checkers that insured that the factual information presented here was iron clad. According to producer and prior Stone collaborator, Fernando Sulichin, media scrutiny will still take place concerning accuracy, however, “We’re really well prepared. A scholar from Oxford, a triple fact checker organization from Washington is behind every [narrative] word on the screen . We are really bulletproof this time. Oliver didn’t write the script. There is not one word that is not really researched.”
In speaking with Stone, his insight into the South American situation and what is clearly the disinformation disseminated by the mainstream media, is enlightening and particularly when speaking about Hugo Chavez. “He’s not the enemy of anybody. He wants good relations. In that sense, they use the word in South America, ‘mutual respect’. Mutual respect - that means equal. And he reached out. He said, ‘I’m good for America.’ He’s one of our best producers of oil. CITGO provides 1 million barrels a day. Of all the oil companies, they have one of the best records environmentally. He gives discounted oil to almost 200,000 families in America for 5 years now. That’s not a stunt. He has pledged money to Haiti, as much as we [US] have. I don’t know what threat he is to this country. I don’t know why we consider him one except that it was the Bush administration [that started it].
Expounding on America itself, Stone believes “that as a country, as a nation, for such a powerful country, we are easily threatened. But more importantly, we don’t understand the concept of mutual respect. If you buy the idea that we are the preeminent power in the world, the Bush-Cheney doctrine that since the Cold War ended we will not allow for the emergence of any competing military or economic rival, which was the stated policy with the Bush administration and seems to be the policy of the Obama administration. If we do not allow for the emergence of any regional powers such as Venezuela or Brazil or China or Russia or Turkey or Iran or Iraq, we’re into this posture where we are at odds. We are going to be enemies. We are going to make enemies. So, I think our entire national defense policy is based on fear. Seems to me it’s a wrong policy. We’re going to go down a road where we’re going to go into a tremendous amount of over-reach and spending a fortune and we’re going to collapse.”
While you can tell Stone's disdain for irresponsible journalism throughout the film, he never goes over the edge with personal condemnation for how images and personas are created and portrayed. Through factual narrative and interviews, together with some archival footage, he gives the audience the tools and just enough information to spark conversation, thought or even to make some better formed opinions or take the individual laboring oar and get more information and education outside the theatre. The political timelines for each country are extremely appreciated while the editing and Stone's scripted narrative by Weisbrot and Tariq Ali, wrap the continent's history into a cohesive comprehensible chapter from a history book. His thoroughness of connecting the dots with the various leaders, governments, IMF, US, DEA gives the film a strong backbone on which his interviews are then based and supported.
I asked Stone what he believes is the biggest responsibility of the media and where has it failed, particularly in light of the information revealed in SOUTH OF THE BORDER. Honestly and candidly, he feels “that when I met the reporters from the United States, they bring a certain bent and it seems to be toward the upper classes. Whether it’s inherent or ingrained, I don’t know, but they are looking for fault. They are looking for blame. Any democratically leader, as they all are, is criticized non-stop for something or other. Nobody being perfect, you have to wonder where they begin to see the positive as opposed to the negative. It seems almost as if it’s a disinformation campaign. It’s a build up of pressure, always pressure. It starts off in the student protests or it starts with inflation or economic irregularities like corruption or censorship or human rights or, in this case, terrorism. And of course, economic futility. Often stories are put out by the government that [these countries] cannot repay their loans to the International Monetary Fund or something of that nature, as it was in Argentina. And if that doesn’t work, there’s, of course, the military option which takes many different shapes as it did with Arbenz in Guatemala. So with Chavez, you have this coup in 2002 which was called a media coup because the opposition was voracious. When I was with Kirchners in Argentina, there’s a media war there. Most of the media in South America is owned privately by rich families, very few rich families. In Brazil it’s the same thing, too. And it’s generally anti-reformers. Why? Because historically the interests of the rich and the allegorks and the corporations are not those of the people. I think it’s the same old story. Nothing has changed. What’s amazing is that it’s still going on because we don’t educate ourselves to this pattern. A pattern of intervention. There have been more than 50 US/North American involvements listed since the turn of the century in Central and South America. And people don’t seem to learn a thing. You talk about Chavez and the first thing out of a North American’s mouth is ‘he’s a dictator, he’s corrupt or he’s closing down radio stations.’ Never do you hear that he doubled the economy, the poverty rate was cut 50% according to the World Bank statistics. There is no accent no the positive. On the larger scale, on a positive note, this is the biggest transformation at one time in the last 10 years that has ever happened. There have never been so many people changing the map in so many countries. I would count 6 maybe 7 countries. That’s amazing. That’s never happened before because there would always be one guy and we’d knock him off and then we’d go and South America remained in this quagmire, this swamp. It’s a very rich continent. There’s no reason they can’t use their own resources to help themselves.”
While visually engaging, more than anything, SOUTH OF THE BORDER is intellectually and educationally stimulating, begging for thought provoking discussion and an introspective look at ourselves and the voices of fact and reason to which we each choose to listen. Looking to the individual communities and community newspapers to open the minds of the public, as succinctly stated by Stone and Silichon, it is their hope “that you re-evaluate the facts [you have long believed]” and use your own brain to make informed opinions.
Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali.