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Oliver Stone targets U.S. policy in South America in 'South of the Border'

The provocateur travels South America and poses mostly gentle questions to six leftist leaders.

July 04, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

It's a Monday night on the Westside of Los Angeles, and Oliver Stone is causing trouble.

The provocateur filmmaker has just finished showing his new documentary "South of the Border" — a shameless if genial piece of agitprop about leftist leaders in South America and Cuba — to a group of Southern California intimates and progressives. From the stage after the film, inside the lobby screening room of the marble-and-glass Century City offices of Creative Artists Agency, Stone is running through U.S.-perpetrated injustices and misperceptions in South America as he sees them.

The Americans under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are working to destabilize democratically elected leaders. The American media perniciously spread rumors that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suppresses the media ("it's a total lie ... Venezuela isn't China"). The American public has been misled about the South American environmental and economic policies. And U.S. military adventures around the world foretell the end of American dominance as we know it. "Fidel used to say that Che said that it will be the end when America has three Vietnams, and we're almost at the point," Stone pronounces.

Stone is always eager to needle the right with his brazenly ideologically driven filmmaking. As the CAA event shows, a session with Stone can feel like a college course, with the director as the professor and audiences as the wide-eyed freshman-year class. He is happy to pepper his responses with numbers and factoids: about gross domestic product, about oil production, about poverty levels.

But the director's filmic methods for teaching that class have shape shifted in "South of the Border," which was scheduled to open this weekend in limited release across Southern California. Unlike "JFK" or "Born on the Fourth of July," where Stone provoked ire for using a feature-film format to pass off his views of history, Stone touches a different nerve here: He's using the ostensibly truth-telling format of nonfiction film to expose his views of (in)justice. (It's most akin, perhaps, to his first Cuba documentary, "Commandante," which became embroiled in a controversy when HBO refused to air it because they said it didn't push Fidel Castro hard enough on crackdowns in that country.)

In the new film, Stone crisscrosses South America lobbing mainly gentle questions at six leftist leaders, spending particular time with Bolivia's coca-grower-trade-leader-turned-President Evo Morales and Venezuela's polarizing leftist Chavez, gaining access and currying favor with them at the same time. From where, Mr. Chavez, did you get the courage to stand down the America-centric International Monetary Fund, he asks the leader. How good, Mr. Morales, does it feel to chew coca leaves? (The two proceed to do just that together.) And what is it like, Raul Castro, to know your brother was such a pioneer in squaring off against the Americans?

It's a survey course of modern Latin American politicians and their relationship with America and Americans, but after a fashion; those hoping for context on the opposition or even the people these leaders govern will be forced to look elsewhere.

For his part, Stone says that the point of the film is not to explore every wrinkle in modern Latin American society but to offer a cinematic corrective to stateside perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. "This issue is much larger than these six countries," Stone says in a phone interview the morning after the screening. "We're still subscribing to the Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz doctrine of unilateral control of the world. Obama is a puppet president in that regard."

Those who have helped Stone put together the film say that it's a much-needed opposition voice to an American media that ignore and distort South America. (The film is sprinkled with examples of blithe hyperbole, mainly from Fox News, about the evils of various South American leaders). "What we're trying to do is show that the media doesn't report what's really going on in South America, that there's another side that never gets covered in the United States," "South of the Border" producer Fernando Sulichin said in an interview from the Cannes Film Festival last month. A suave, Argentinean-born, Paris-dwelling producer, Sulichin helped arrange access to many of the leaders for Stone.

For all its political preoccupations, however, South of the Border" focuses heavily on economics and financial policy. Its main concern lies with the way the U.S. has sought to impose a system, and how these leaders have, in Stone's view, nobly resisted and turned around their country.

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