Fearful Symmetries

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06 October, 2010

South of the Border

Oliver Stone's South of the Border is at once interesting & thought-provoking and frustrating. It profiles the leaders of various Central and South American countries and Cuba too: Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raúl Castro (Cuba). Stone acts as the movie's narrator and is the interviewer as well.

It's not the first time the director has delved into the area. Earlier this decade he profiled Fidel Castro in two separate movies - Comandante and Looking for Fidel - and his debut was Salvador, about the death squads in El Salvador. Niether Comandante nor Looking for Fidel got much distribution, here in the States, anyway. And so it was good to see that his latest effort did. (Plus many thanks to the Orpheum for screening it.)

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez gets the most screentime of anyone here but this is perhaps deservedly so. At the beginning Stone gives us various clips from American TV showing how the man is demonized by our media. Commentators on Fox and CNN blather seemingly endlessly, interjecting enough hyperbole to give on the impression that the Venezuelan president has "666" tattooed on his scalp. Following this comes a brief statement about the role of the IMF in subjugating the countries of South America to U.S. interests.

After all this prefatory material, the profile of Chávez begins. We learn a little bit about his childhood and how he went into the military only to lead an unsuccessful coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. But in 1998 he made the comeback of the decade when he was elected president. Much of movie consists of Stone sitting with the leaders and asking questions via an interpreter. There's plenty of that with Chávez but they also drive around and end up at the site of the president's childhood home where he rides a bicycle which falls apart beneath him.

For his part, and this is the frustrating part, Stone throws fat pitches at him giving Chávez the chance to really direct the discussion and put himself in only the best light. He loves to align himself with Simón Bolívar, for instance. Stone asked him what it felt like being a hostage when he was the target of a coup and of others very generic things like "How does it feel to be out from beneath the boots of the IMF?". These did very little to illuminate the subject and the position of their respective countries.

This same template is applied to the rest of the leaders profiled in the movie. Stone hangs out at a presidential residence and essentially lets his subjects talk about socialism, how their societies are changing for the better, etc. My guess is that Stone would justify his movie by saying that he's providing a counternarrative. The U.S. media either portrays these leaders as evil dictators or ignores them and so I think the view that the movie is about trying to swing the pendulum the other way has a point. But this is why I found South of the Border frustrating. It goes overboard and tries to make these people into saints. I don't want to diminish the positive things that these leaders have done for their countries but I really wanted a rounder view of them and their accomplishments.

But, taking what Stone gives us, there are still some interesting bits to be had. I found it very poignant when one person said of Evo Morales that it was the first time, even if only in a long time, that the Amerindians had a leader who looked like them. Indeed, having a dark-skinned leader is something new for we here in the States. The talk about the IMF was rather limited but there was one sequence when it was revealed that the organization didn't want these countries to pay off their debts. Instead, they wanted them under its thumb.

Whatever the movie's flaws, it certainly prompted a lot of questions from me and threw into sharp relief my incredible ignorance about the continent. I knew a fair amount about Hugo Chávez going in because he does get press here but I only knew the names of the other leaders. Their elections led to their names being mentioned but the major news media doesn't exactly say much else about them or give me any context.

Despite the many flaws here, South of the Border at least had the virtue of inspiring me to learn more about our neighbors to the south.

|| Palmer, 12:16 PM


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