After watching Oliver Stone's new documentary South of the Border, in which he travels around Latin America to hang out with world leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, I kept thinking of it as a modern day equivalent of 1940s Disney films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. It's a bit of a stretch, but Stone serves much like Donald Duck does in those animation/live-action hybrids. He's a celebrated character serving as a cultural ambassador in a goodwill tour of nations south of the border.
The main differences here are that the JFK director and his new friends are not cartoons (at least not literally) and that, as the film focuses on, the U.S. and many Central and South American countries currently have the opposite of FDR's Good Neighbor policy. Also, Stone doesn't get introduced to different Latin American dances or women (whitewashed or otherwise), though he does get down with some coca leaf chewing with Bolivia's President Evo Morales. Other similar photo opportunities include a little futbol pass between those two men and an earlier visit to Chavez's childhood home, where el Presidente humorously collapses a child's bike beneath his weight.
All the time flash bulbs are going off distractingly and it's questionable who is being paraded more, the leaders or their new propagandist. Actually, in the end, I can't accept South of the Border to be classified as propaganda. I think I'd have preferred it as such. Instead the documentary is as much a vanity project as I've ever seen on film. If Stone had made Triumph of the Will, he'd have been onscreen more than Hitler -- not to mean for a connection between that dictator and Chavez and co. (I'll leave such comparisons to people like Donald Rumsfeld to make).
American political and media representations of the left-wing Latin American leaders is what gets South of the Border started, and initially I expected the film to be a little fun, if still one-sided. After opening with a Daily Show-appropriate clip from Fox News followed by a Michael Moore appearance on CNN, it seemed Stone intended to follow Moore's first-person model, voice-over narration and all. Unfortunately, this film is not even as entertaining as that.
I'm actually not certain Moore would ever be as self-indulgent as to conclude a film with footage of himself being casually interviewed (by a Latin American journalist? one of his crew?) as he talks about what he likes about the subjects he's been focusing his lens on. The extent of the vanity is clear much, much earlier, however, when Stone's face first appears onscreen for no good reason in a cutaway shot during an "expert commentary" interview with South of the Border co-writer/consultant Tariq Ali. Later there is another obnoxious moment during an interview in which a cut is made to a wide shot of the film crew shooting the scene, in order to include the director. It's the worst kind of "hey ma, look at me making a documentary" filmmaking.
Oh, and of course there's plenty of time for Chavez, Morales, Castro, Argentina's Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Brazil's Lula da Silva to each talk about the past and present of their countries. But honestly the majority of what I recall from the film is stuff like Stone half-kidding Chavez about his lack of fun and calling Cristina Kirchner "feisty." As well as my surprise at learning during the end credits that "direct cinema" documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) was involved as a cameraman.
Although the director claims he never dreamed South of the Border would play anywhere outside of Venezuela, for those seeing it in the U.S. it will likely come across as a simple series of interviews -- though some wouldn't even call them that -- through which Stone presents the truth about each leader via that person's own words. More likely if he really didn't make the film for Northern viewers, it's just a way of Stone showing those in the Southern Hemisphere that, hey look, at least you have a few Good Neighbors up here.
I expect that the tone of this review and my criticisms of Stone and South of the Border may cause readers to assume this to be a political attack. It is not in the least. Though I won't claim support for or against the figures showcased in the film, I will say I can't imagine even Sean Penn liking this movie. I mean, obviously he'd like it, but he couldn't with a straight face say it's good. I have taken a lot of issue with the direction first-person docs have gone in recent years, but this takes the cake over any self-therapeutic family-focused work of non-fiction cinema.
Having seen South of the Border at Silverdocs, where the fest followed its screening with a ballsy Q&A/panel discussion featuring a harsh detractor of the film on stage alongside Stone, Ali and co-writer/consultant Mark Weisbrot, I can't say seeing it was a waste of time. The 1-against-3 debate was bravely and viciously fought by Latin American studies scholar Cynthia Arnson, and while I couldn't necessarily take her side in her own political and factual criticisms, I was excited to be in the presence of such a conversation.
I do have to agree with Arnson's attack of the one-sidedness of the film, though, if only because of the illogical response she received from Weisbroth, who claimed there just wasn't enough time in an hour-and-fifteen-minute film to include anti-Chavez Venezuelans' statements (and the like). She came back questioning then the inclusion of the leisurely moments, such as the soccer scene. Personally, though, I'd just like to point out that documentaries can and often are longer than 75 minutes. I might have even appreciated a five-hour propaganda film if it wasn't all about Stone.