Sketches of a Revolution: Still Waiting for the Oil Painting

July 1, 2010

South of the Border a documentary film by Oliver Stone (Cinema Libre Studio, 2009, 78 mins.),

At the end of Oliver Stone's new film, South of the Border, Bolivian president Evo Morales quotes the last words of indigenous rebel leader Tupac Katari, before he was drawn and quartered by Spanish colonists in 1782: “I am one, but I will return as millions.” For Morales, Katari’s prophecy is now coming true, and it is an epic tale: A priest, a trade unionist, an Aymara Indian, a woman, and a soldier born under a palm-leaf roof have taken the reins of a continent, faced down the greatest empire on earth, and are governing for the poor and the downtrodden.

The life stories of Latin America’s left-wing presidents, some of whom suffered imprisonment, torture, racial discrimination, and exile before rising to power, are each worthy of a Hollywood classic. So one might expect Stone to mould these elements and characters into an uplifting, broad-brush portrait of a continent throwing off its shackles. But instead, Stone’s treatment of Latin America’s historic “left turn” takes the form of a meandering, surprisingly low-key series of interviews with the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Venezuela.

Part of the film’s appeal is that it features lesser-known leaders like Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, as well Morales, Hugo Chávez, and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, in conversations unmediated by U.S. news networks. If the film has a focus, it is a lacerating attack on the U.S. media’s distorted portrayal of Chávez and other Latin American leaders. If there were justice in the world, this documentary would be aired on primetime Fox News, if only to show that these leaders are not kitten-eating monsters (as Fox once portrayed Chávez, only half-jokingly), but sane, thoughtful human beings. One hopes too that the Obama team will watch it and absorb the words of Lula, who, articulating a sentiment expressed by all the presidents, says: “I have no interest in fighting with the United States. The only thing I want is to be treated as equals.”

The film begins with a notorious clip from Fox & Friends aired in 2008. Above the tagline “What a Dope! Top-Quality Drugs for Chávez,” Gretchen Carlson, the show’s heavily made-up blonde presenter, says excitedly:

I knew there were some dictators around the world, but did you know that some of the dictators are now apparently, allegedly, drug addicts? . . . Hugo Chávez admitting in a speech that he chews cocoa every morning and that he also eats something called cocoa paste, which by the way is addictive, and he gets it from his friend, the dictator of Bolivia.

A voice in her co-presenter’s earpiece says it is coca, not cocoa. “I don’t know my narcotics as well as I should,” Carlson says, laughing. Viewers familiar with documentaries on Venezuela might recognize this footage, which appeared in a recent film by Anglo-Chilean director Pablo Navarette, Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela. Indeed the first 20 minutes of South of the Border lacks original footage, which gives it a rather familiar air. It charts the history of Chávez’s rise to power, using clips from Fox News and CNN interspersed with archival material, including scenes of the 2002 coup that, again, were shown in The Revolution Will Not be Televised, directed by two Irish filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain.

It is surprising that Stone, having chosen to eschew drama for realité and one-on-one interviews, does not ask more penetrating questions. At one point he asks the president of Argentina how many pairs of shoes she has. Thankfully Fernández replies: “Why does no one ever ask men how many pairs of shoes they have?” Moreover, it may give us an insight into Chávez the man to be shown his desk and to discover that he stays up late reading tomes like Politics and Government (“How boring can you get?” Stone remarks). But is it really necessary to ask Chávez—renowned for his outspokenness, who called George W. Bush a donkey and the devil—whether his feelings are hurt by his image in the U.S. press?

Stone notes, rightly, the double standards of the U.S. government and media, which highlight Venezuela’s human rights failings while downplaying those of Colombia, when all independent organizations, including the United Nations, say the latter’s are far worse. The most recent report on Colombia by the UN High Commission on Human Rights, for example, cites widespread extrajudicial executions by the armed forces and “paramilitary infiltration of the state”—abuses unheard of in Venezuela. Nevertheless, how can one interview Chávez without even raising the criticisms made by human rights groups, the two most important being restrictions on the media and political interference in the judiciary?

Even from a sympathizer’s point of view, Stone fails to explore the contradiction that a revolution aimed at giving power to the people has resulted in the concentration of power in one man. This point (indeed the only criticism of Chávez in the entire film) is finally made later by Argentina’s former president, Néstor Kirchner, who says: “Absolute power is always bad. This is something I always tell Hugo. . . . You need to build collectively. You need to have 10 presidential candidates. It can’t just be you.”

Nor does the film really explore what is happening on the ground in Venezuela. We are given a brief glimpse of a land co-operative and an Iranian-funded corn-processing factory, giving rise to the funniest moment in film: “This is where we are building the Iranian atomic bomb,” Chávez jokes, prompting Stone to exclaim, “Don’t say that!” But despite the film’s focus on a people’s revolution, we hear nothing from ordinary Chavistas, and there is no explanation of what exactly 21st-century socialism is.

The barrage of new clips of Venezuela eventually becomes tiring, and the pace thankfully slows. Stone and his team land at the airport in El Alto, just outside La Paz, Bolivia, sucking on oxygen masks to cope with the high altitude. This is the start of a tour of South America and interviews with Morales, the Kirchners, Lula, Lugo, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Raúl Castro of Cuba. Each of these conversations is entertaining and contain some gems; Kirchner, for example, relates how George W. Bush confided to him his secret of economic growth: war. Morales’s description of being tortured by Bolivian soldiers, supervised by DEA agents, is shocking.

Probably to counter the distorted image of Latin America’s left-wing leaders in the U.S. media, Stone makes an effort to humanize them, including scenes of Morales playing soccer and Chávez fooling around on a bike, but it is a decision that makes for a rather flabby, directionless film. Having had no introduction at the beginning, the viewer has no idea where the film is headed, and the air slowly dissipates from the movie, leading to an anti-climactic end. Given the film’s rather unsatisfactory structure, one wonders if Stone’s film can sustain the interest of non-specialist viewers.

But for Latin America enthusiasts, it is fascinating to see the different styles of the presidents—the rather imperious manner of Fernández versus the contemplative gentility of Lugo, whose short interview hints at who the real star of this film is. When Stone gives his verdict on the Paraguayan president (“You are a gentle man and, I think, a good man”), Lugo replies: “This [meeting] is something I will never forget.” Kirchner’s description of facing down the IMF is fascinating and will be of particular relevance to those Europeans reliving the Latin American experience of market turmoil, IMF strictures, and popular protest. Lula, who freed Brazil from the IMF another way, forcefully articulates Brazil’s emerging strength in the world: “We paid off the IMF. We paid off the Paris Club. We don’t owe anything to anybody.”

The final destination is Havana, and Stone meditates rather poignantly on the Cuban Revolution, which he compares to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The revolution is the fish that took so much effort to catch, but which has been eaten by the sharks by the time it is brought to shore. For Stone, the struggle was noble, and he sees in Chávez the same fighting spirit as that of Fidel: “He is a bull.”

Tacked onto the end of the film is Obama’s electoral victory. Stone suggests that the U.S. president privately pledged to Chávez that he would not interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Sadly, the Obama administration continues to maintain the Office of Transition Initiatives in Caracas and to fund opposition groups in the country. The film ends not long after Obama took office, before he alienated the Latin American left by failing to crack down on the Honduran coup and by installing U.S. forces on seven Colombian military bases.

It is noteworthy that Stone has chosen to show a positive appraisal of Obama from Chávez (“Let’s hope he’s another Roosevelt”) rather than his remark, made soon after the U.S. election, that Obama represents the Empire. Perhaps this open-armed approach to Obama has been chosen in the hope he will watch the film and rethink his attitude toward Latin America’s left-wing leaders.

This engaging but uneven film includes both too much and too little. The interviews get shorter and shorter as Stone flies around Latin America trying to squeeze in all the presidents, who are eventually reduced to sound bites with little depth or context. The presidents in this film all demand sovereignty and an end to interference in their nations’ affairs, but the travelogue format mutes their message. In essence, these are preparatory sketches, and Stone should take his brush to the canvas once more to paint the bold, colorful, and thrilling masterpiece that this epic story truly deserves.

Grace Livingstone is the author of America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror (Zed Books, 2009).


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