Oliver Stone’s interest in South America’s turbulent political and social histories has been evident since his pre-Platoon effort Salvador which chronicled an American photographer’s experiences under the military dictatorship. In the course of the next few decades, the director has trudged through the jungles of Vietnam (Platoon), waded through the JFK conspiracies (JFK) and interviewed Fidel Castro (Comandante) at length during a time when the American media imposes an unofficial press embargo on Cuba to compliment the economic block enforced by the US administration.
In a further effort to explore the misreported world of this corner of the sub-continent, Stone has collaborated with Tariq Ali to question an impressive roster of senior political figures for South of the Border; everyone from Raoul Castro to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner all featuring as talking heads to Stone’s obliging nodding head.
North America’s relationship with Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuala, is a tempestuous one to say the least. Vilified by many as a dictator, an oppressor and considered in some circles to be a stark raving madman, Chavez has become a man shrouded in mystery as a result of distorted, and unsubstantiated conjecture. An excerpt from Fox News shown at the beginning of the film depicts a news anchor insinuating Hugo Chavez is a drug addict who relentlessly consumes ‘coco’ (she means to say coca) much to the amusement of her cohorts. This bogus claim is, South of the Border argues, just a tiny example of the war of misinformation being waged on Chavez, Kirchner, Morales and countless other South American leaders ranging from Brazil to Paraguay.
Stone’s film succeeds in exploring the American media’s prejudice against their not so distant neighbours, the way in which the government is pursuing a thinly veiled imperialist agenda in most Latin American countries and how these two blind sights are obscuring what is arguably a period of unparalleled progressiveness in South American history. Leaders are talking to one another in ways they have never done so before with discussions of forming a united currency to help bind their countries together in the face of US monopolies and economic colonialism. What Stone absolutely fails to do is ask the important questions of his subjects who all go unchallenged as they speak enthusiastically about their respective government’s achievements which, if they are true, remain unproven in this film. In one such episode Stone, verging on sycophancy, prefers to play football with Morales rather than continue his interview. One suspects the (literally) veteran director was wooed in the presence of formidable and charismatic personalities, causing him to forego a pursuit of insight in favour of a meaningless publicity stunt.
Despite the appalling whiplash editing (the film is for the most part constructed from televised news footage) and the sense of an opportunity lost, South of the Border occasionally satisfies in giving rarely seen access to figures either ousted from the American media or hideously misrepresented to the point of libel. The Brazilian president’s account of George Bush Jr. advising him to initiate a small war in order to boost the economy is one of several moments in South of the Border that satisfactorily compels and intrigues but it is impossible to shake the feeling that Stone’s film ends up as more of a harmless propaganda piece than a subjective interrogation. Perhaps its strongest point will be in provoking debate and argument in the US regarding their foreign policy and approach to Latin America which is in dire need of revision and enlightenment.