Throughout much of his career, Oliver Stone amassed a well deserved reputation as a rabble-rouser and sort of cinematic contrarian. But after the massive commercial failure of 2004’s Alexander (and another DUI/drug pinch, in 2005), beginning with the politically streamlined World Trade Center and W., Stone made a concerted effort to step away from his outsized personality, to become a less public and divisive personality — to “play nice,” in essence — in order to remain relevant, plugged in and in favor with the Hollywood studio system. He didn’t quit making movies to which he had a personal attachment, but he did make sure that he stopped quite as vociferously advertising himself as a free, moving target for his frequently conservative detractors.
A terrific, easy-to-digest alternative living history to the mainstream media’s by turns atrocious and disinterested
coverage of Latin American politics, Stone’s insightful new documentary, South
of the Border, introduces North American viewers to the
Presidents of South America and their modern-day leftist revolution. It’s a smooth and personable work that could easily fit within the confines of a hard-driving, network tele-newsmag (if any truly remained), but the compelling and undeniable macro portrait that emerges is of an entire region demonized and controlled by proxy for generations by its capitalist, democracy-touting neighbor to the north.
In what is very much a sort of intellectual travelogue (the film chronicles Stone’s personal travels to South America in the winter of 2009), South of the Border tells the story of the rise to power of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (above right) and other South American presidents responsible for sweeping social and political changes in the region. Those subjects include Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), as well as her husband and ex-President Néstor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raúl Castro (Cuba). In a series of casual and intimate conversations interspersed with oddly touching and amusing personal moments (Chávez returns to his childhood home, and tries to ride a too-small bike; Morales gets in a bit of soccer practice with Stone, after instructing him on the proper way to chew cocoa leaves), South of the Border presents these leaders as reasonable, level-headed people with the best interests of their populaces at heart.
Understandably, the film has drawn some criticism from the United States’ considerable right-wing media and anti-Chávez factions (it doesn’t even pretend to give lip-service equal time to Chávez’s detractors, for instance), and it’s true that absent any dissenting voices it’s hard to accurately and adequately gauge Chávez’s record on human rights and freedom of the press, for instance. But Stone also sprinkles in a variety of trusted academics, journalists and other talking heads, including author Bart Jones, and the portrait that emerges is one of understandably informed slight paranoia, given both the rich history of covertly supported regime overthrow by the United States and specific actions taken by the Bush Administration in 2005.
There’s undeniably a revolution underway in South America, and South of the Border clears up many of the misconceptions of the area. The irony is that as democracy — a system we purport to value and champion everywhere — has become more robustly embraced in South America, it has elected atypical leaders of the indigenous and/or historical underclass population (including a metal worker, a soldier, a former bishop and two women), heads of state who bristle at the United States’ general triumphantist arrogance and do not feel necessarily beholden and subservient to our country in the same ways as past South American leaders.
The film’s most breathtakingly telling moment involves ex-Argentinean President Kirchner recalling President George W. Bush deriding talk of a cooperative, Marshall Plan-esque policy of trade, fiscal responsibility and stimulus as Democratic claptrap, and instead extolling the economic benefits of war, a tired and fallacious orthodoxy that has been peddled for generations, particularly if not entirely exclusively by Republican chicken hawks working in synchronous lockstep to keep feeding the gaping maws of the military-industrial complex. The movie’s big-picture takeaway, meanwhile, concerns how the International Monetary Fund has been used a mechanism of control and guinea pig experimentation, preaching state nonintervention in the face of various crippling South American economic crises — you know, exactly the sorts of policies that the United States and Europe do not pursue. The ugly, sad truth: in a global economy, the world is a scale, really, and for the United States to remain up, other countries must remain down. Those south of the border won’t do so quietly anymore, however.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, South
of the Border comes to DVD presented on a region-free disc. The disc’s ample special features consist of a clutch of deleted scenes, an extended interview segment with Chávez, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a “Changes in Venezuela” segment that serves up a look at Chávez’s various reforms and
their impact on the country’s poor, plus two South American television interviews
with Stone. All told, it’s over 90 minutes’ worth of bonus content, all of which provides further valuable context to the current geopolitical climate and its economic realities. To purchase the movie on DVD or Blu-ray, click here. Or to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)