South of the Border: Countermyth or Counterpropaganda?

| 6/30/2010 10:54:29 AM

Hugo Chavez rides a bikeOliver Stone is not a subtle filmmaker. His projects, like the director himself, tend to voice bold opinions and provoke strong responses—and his latest, South of the Border, about the new wave of leftist leaders in Latin America, is no different. Recently on, critic Rob Nelson called the film a “countermyth” to prevailing media coverage and came away impressed by its entertainment value if not its evenhandedness. Fellow critic Anthony Kaufman, however, sees the film as crossing over into “counterpropaganda,” glossing over Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s human rights abuses with its “reductive calculations.” Apparently, asking people how they liked the film is like asking them who shot J.F.K.: You’ll get a different answer every time. —The Editors

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has received a bum rap. Along with his comrades in the Latin American “New Left,” Chavez has routinely been called a dictator, Stalinist and “menace to the West.” If you watch enough cable news, you might think the former soldier was conspiring with Iran to launch a military attack on U.S. soil at any given moment. Such preposterous claims require neutralizing, which is why Oliver Stone’s new documentary South of the Border offers a useful counterpoint to the dominant conservative propaganda that bellows constantly from U.S. politicians and media outlets.

But in the race to depict Chavez and his cohorts in Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, among others, as part of a widespread and faultless “Bolivarian” revolution, Stone’s project suffers from the same reductive calculations that we often get from the countries’ right-wing critics.

Dictatorships or pure socialist democracies? An axis of evil or an axis of hope? The answer, of course, lies somewhere in between. But in Stone’s documentary reality, the extreme poles are reified, with wacko Fox News pundits on one side, deriding Chavez as a “coco” drug addict, and the president himself, on the other, depicted as a teddy-bear-ish savior, hugging random passerby and preaching utopian dreams.

“Who is Hugo Chavez?” asks Stone early in the film, as part of his running narration. The documentary begins with a short history lesson: Venezuela’s economic collapse in 1989, Chavez’s failed military coup in 1992, his presidential election victory in 1997, and the shocking and short-lived CIA-supported unrest that briefly removed Chavez from power in April 2002. The street violence and voluble political roller coaster ride of that infamous week gets a more comprehensive investigation in the 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Nonetheless, as the opening salvo in South of the Border, this crisply edited history lesson on Venezuela’s ups and downs, and the United States’ and International Monetary Fund’s efforts to suppress progressive change in the country, makes for a strong and compelling introduction.

But then Stone switches emphasis to Chavez the man, producing a hagiographic portrait and linking him none too subtly to Simon Bolivar, the legendary 19th century Venezuelan leader who fought for independence from Spain. We see Chavez’s birthplace, and get to know the politician as a human being rather than a combative soundbite from the news. In one bright ironic scene, Stone and Chavez are visiting a newly constructed corn-processing plant to show off Venezuela’s thriving state-supported industry, and Chavez wryly jokes, “This is where we’re building the Iranian atomic bomb.” Stone quickly replies, “Don’t say that!” perhaps fearing what Glenn Beck might do if he got hold of the quote.

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