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A Middle East project is buried under Stone

June 05, 2003|Howard Rosenberg | Times Staff Writer

The best way to see and hear a lot of movie director Oliver Stone is to watch a documentary he's made about something or someone else. That applies to his "HBO Undercover" film that features a special appearance by Stone -- strategizing, thinking deeply, fretting, picking bananas in an outdoor market -- as himself.

About 14 months ago, he and a crew spent five days in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, shooting footage for tonight's chaotic and indulgent "Persona Non Grata," whose title apparently refers to Stone and his inability to secure an interview with Yasser Arafat. Who does he think he is, Michael Moore?

We do see Stone meeting Arafat and shaking his hand shortly before much of the embattled Palestinian leader's Ramallah compound was destroyed by the Israeli military. But at some point Stone complains, seemingly about Arafat: "What, do we have to wait for him? It's always something."

Yes it is. And if Yasser is going to snub Ollie, to heck with him.

Squandering 90 minutes on this amorphous project -- a film about making a film that has no clear purpose beyond style and spotlighting the messenger -- is like feeding a camel to a gerbil. Although the historic conflict remains, moreover, this take on it has been outdistanced by the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority prime minister, along with the Bush administration's tenuous "road map" for peace.

Stone on the Israeli-Palestinian atmosphere: "The wind blows here in four directions at once." So does convoluted "Persona Non Grata," which takes a crazy quilt, stream-of-consciousness, artsy-craftsy approach in showing Stone revving up for Arafat and interviewing former Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu against the region's background of spiraling violence.

The director also chats with a spokesman for the political wing of Hamas and masked members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, two of the radical groups behind suicide bombings in Israel.

Absent is present Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And for the most part so is Arafat, although it's never clear why, Stone's film being much less about information than about mood, camera angles and thrusting himself into his narrative.

Take his meeting with Peres, whom we first see with Stone in the frame drinking water. Then comes a shot over Peres' shoulder to get Stone full face, weighing the Israeli's words.

Meanwhile, the film's manipulative music runs from Middle Eastern wailing to tingly stuff meant to accentuate the perils facing the region's inhabitants and, by implication, Stone and his crew.

Making a film about yourself there is a dangerous business, but somebody has to do it.


'Persona Non Grata'

Where: HBO

When: 7 tonight, with multiple repeat showings.

Rating: The network has rated the documentary TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14, with advisories for adult content and violence).

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