In his new documentary "South of the Border," Oliver Stone is shown warmly embracing Hugo Chavez, nibbling coca leaves with Evo Morales and gently teasing Cristina Elizabeth Fernandez de Kirchner about how many pairs of shoes she owns.
These amiable, off-the-cuff snapshots of the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, respectively, contrast with the way these left-leaning leaders often are depicted in U.S. political and mass media circles. That's especially true of Chavez, the former military officer turned democratically elected socialist leader, who has become the ideological heir apparent to Fidel Castro and the bete noire of Bush administration foreign policy officials.
In setting out to make "South of the Border," which is scheduled to have its world premiere this week at the Venice Film Festival, Stone, a lightning-rod figure himself for the better part of three decades, says that he wanted to supply a counterpoint to the prevailing U.S. image of Chavez, who's frequently represented in stateside op-ed pieces and political cartoons as a bellicose dictator-cum-comic opera figure.
"I think he's an extremely dynamic and charismatic figure. He's open and warmhearted and big, and a fascinating character," says the director of "JFK" and "Wall Street," speaking by phone from New York, where he's working on a much-publicized "Wall Street" sequel. "But when I go back to the States I keep hearing these horror stories about 'dictator,' 'bad guy,' 'menace to American society.' I think the project started as something about the American media demonizing Latin leaders. It became more than that as we got more involved."
In addition to Chavez, Stone sought to flesh out several other South American leaders whose policies and personalities generally get scant media attention in the United States and Europe: Morales; Cristina Kirchner and her husband, Argentine former president Nestor Kirchner; Rafael Correa of Ecuador; Raul Castro of Cuba; Fernando Lugo Mendez of Paraguay; and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.
"The press in America, I think you're aware, has divided the Latin continent into the 'bad Left' and the 'good Left,' " Stone says. "They've now listed Correa as the bad Left, along with Morales and with Chavez. They call . . . Lula, the good Left. I don't know what they make of Kirchner yet, because they go back and forth, but I think they're turning against Kirchner more and more. You get this distinction, and I think it's a false distinction."
Both Stone and the film's writer, the Pakistani-British historian, novelist and commentator Tariq Ali, say that the roughly 90-minute documentary isn't intended to be a comprehensive analysis of current South American political trends. It doesn't try to parse the radically divergent views of a figure as polarizing as Chavez. Nor does it substantially address the ongoing criticisms of his incendiary rhetoric (he once called Bush the devil), his frequent dust-ups with Venezuela's opposition media (which supported a 2002 coup against him), or his disputed role in aiding leftist rebels fighting the government of neighboring Colombia.
"We had not set out in the spirit of, like, making this a contentious debate," says Stone, who first met the Venezuelan president in 2007. "When you try to get into every single rightist argument against Chavez, you're never going to win. You're going to bore the audience."
Instead, the filmmakers decided to make what Ali calls "a political road movie" by visiting Chavez's peers throughout the hemisphere and asking what they think of him. Stone and his crew travel from the Caribbean down the spine of the Andes trying to explain the Chavez phenomenon and account for the continent's recent leftward tilt.
A big part of the explanation the film advances is that the free-market economic policies pushed by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund over the last several years largely have failed to alleviate Latin America's chronic income inequality. The film suggests that financial calamities such as the Argentine peso collapse of 2001, combined with Latin suspicions of U.S. drug-eradication efforts and resentment over the selling off of natural resources through multinational companies, also have contributed to the rise of socialist and social-democratic leaders across the region.
Ali believes that many United States foreign policy officials still are operating on a Cold War paradigm that prevents them from grasping the changing social realities that have brought a new generation of politicians to power.
"These changes that are taking place are not coming about through armed struggle or guerrilla warfare or Che Guevara," Ali says, speaking from London. "All these changes have come about through democratic elections. And that makes it a very, very significant development in that continent."