With a screenplay co-written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Oliver Stone’s South of the Border promised to be a good movie. I am pleased to announce that it is much better than I expected and a must-see for people knowledgeable about the Latin American left as well as those who only get their information from CNN. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching the movie is seeing the talking heads at Fox and CNN get exposed as the lying idiots that they are. The movie opens with three dorks from Fox discussing Hugo Chavez’s “drug problem”, which is described as starting his mornings with cocoa. You can’t make this shit up.
The movie consists of footage from television and old newsreels, largely intended to demonstrate the willingness of the media to serve State Department ambitions, as well as interviews with key Latin American leaders. It dawned on me during Oliver Stone’s sit-down with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa that I have never seen him interviewed on American television, nor were Argentina’s Kirchners, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, or Cuba’s Raul Castro ever given a moment on “Sixty Minutes” or any other news show. By allowing them to speak for themselves, Stone breaks a news embargo that is almost as vicious as that Cuba faces on the economic front.
About half the movie is devoted to Venezuela and provides a bird’s eye view of the roots and dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez serves as a guide to these events in some very moving as well as comical moments. He recounts being on an island surrounded by his captors just after the 2002 coup, when a bishop arrives to demand that a letter of resignation be signed. By this point, Chavez has learned that the coup has failed and informs the bishop of that fact who thereupon decides to fly back to Caracas with Chavez on a military helicopter, all the while stating his happiness with the turn of events. In this anecdote, the Latin American church is exposed for its opportunist role but without the usual anti-clerical rhetoric. Chavez is too smart for that.
All in all, the time spent with Chavez is pure entertainment. He is the most unlikely president in all of Latin American history. He grew up in a mud shack and has an obvious affinity with the slum dwellers that are the base of his presidency. He appears to genuinely enjoy coming in contact with the people who are genuinely determining the country’s future, unlike the typical politician who sees them as potential votes and nothing else.
After Venezuela, Stone’s next stop is Bolivia where he meets with Evo Morales who gives him some coca (not cocoa!) to help him fight off nausea and fatigue brought on by the high altitudes.
Perhaps the most interesting moments, at least for me, are those spent with the Kirchners of Argentina. Néstor Carlos Kirchner was president from 2003 to 2007 and has been succeeded by his wife Cristina. They are witty and urbane like most Argentinians I have known throughout my life, plus they provide some insights into the thinking of the more progressive wing of Peronism, a current that has obviously influenced Hugo Chavez. At one point, Cristina Kirchner sends an aide into a nearby room to bring back a photo that she is proud of. After a moment or two, before the aide has returned, she turns to Oliver Stone and asks “what makes men so slow?” Priceless.
It turns out that the photo was Hugo Chavez, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Lula and Fidel Castro in a group portrait. It is a sign of the times that the heads of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil are proud to be photographed with American imperialism’s most hated enemy. What the movie reflects more than anything else is the tidal wave that is sweeping Latin America. While it might not result in the immediate overthrow of capitalism in the countries that are part of this change, it does make it a lot easier for country following that path to resist American domination. Arguably, if the Sandinista revolution had triumphed today rather than in 1979, when Reaganism was triumphant, it might have had a chance for survival. For this reason alone, it is a mistake to sneer at the Latin American left for not living up to Bolshevik norms.
Just a word or two about the technical details of how this film was made, a subject becoming more interesting to me as I entertain notions of doing my own documentary some day. The legendary Albert Maysles served as a cameraman. Now 84, Maysles is best known for movies about popular culture (Gimme Shelter) and eccentrics (Grey Gardens). Considering his advanced age, my first impulse was to wonder why he would endure the hardship of filming on location in a place like Bolivia with its high altitude. And then I remembered what a 92 year old Harry Magdoff told Michael Lebowitz: “If I was only in my 80s again, I’d be down in Venezuela.”
Stone used a bare-bones film crew that shot with two Sony Z-7U HD cameras, costing less than $6000 each. In keeping with the relaxed and DIY character of South of the Border, which often feels like a home movie, there is no attempt made to hide the cameras or the mikes. Despite the film’s modest means, it is more successful than any of Oliver Stone’s recent movies. Good work all round for Tariq Ali, Mark Weisbrot and Oliver Stone.
South of the Border opens nationwide on June 25th. Schedule information is here.