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Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

SOUTH OF THE BORDER Oliver Stone Reports. You Decide.

South Of The Border, a film by Oliver Stone, is a trip by Mr. Stone to South America where he conducts conversations with the elected Presidents of several countries including, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales, Bolivia, Lula da Silvo, Brazil, Cristina Kirchner and her husband Nestor Kirchner (the ex president), Argentina, Fernando Lugo, Paraguay, Rafael Correa, Ecuador. Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez visit Cuba for a short conversation with Raul Castro. The conversations reveal a different picture of these leaders than the one portrayed in the media. The Presidents speak about their goals for their countries, the region and how they regard the United States among other topics.

In this film the President of each country talk about their national goals and growing independence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States and Europe. Lula da Silvo proudly tells Stone that Brazil paid off the IMF and that they do not owe money to any other country. The politics they adhere to are strong nationalism and left leaning policies that they believe will help the people of their countries.

Oliver Stone facilitates an opposing viewpoint to the propaganda put out by so called news outlets like Fox and other news media in the United States. In general, South Of The Border disputes the prevailing perceptions about the leaders of each South American country visited. Stone presents the notion that a new order is emerging in South America, a continent once dominated by foreign colonial powers and corporate interests. Most of the Presidents had a great deal of distain for the policies of George W. Bush during his presidency of the United States.

It’s enlightening and interesting to hear the other side of the story. There is no attempt to examine or dispute what Chavez and other leaders tell Stone in the conversations he has with each of them. Stone’s interview style is conversational and apparently sympathetic to the views of the interviewees. No strongly controversial questions are asked. There is “B” roll from US cable television painting Chavez and others as dictators and socialists. The conversations and interviews presented contradicts this footage.

The main focus of the film is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The film disputes the idea that Chavez is a dictator showing that he has been elected to office eleven times. Lines of Venezuelans are seen cueing up to vote. Many appear to be Chavez supporters wearing red shirts. Mr. Chavez takes Oliver Stone on a couple tours including the site of his humble beginnings, and other sites demonstrating changes he has implemented.  A notable achievement is the fact that Venezuela now produces a large of amount of its own food. Mr. Chavez also voices his opinions regarding the way he has been vilified by the media both at home and in the US. He appears to derive his support from the poor and working class citizens of the country. The leaders of the other six countries included in South Of The Border appear to respect Chavez’s ideas about South American solidarity. He appears with Oliver Stone in some of the other countries while the interviews with those Presidents are conducted.

Documentary films, like nonfiction books, have a point-of-view (POV), because human beings, who are subjective by nature, make them. A documentary should be able to pass the “actuality” test and the “objective reality” test to qualify as nonfiction reality.  Are events and interviews actual or staged?  Objective reality deals with supporting facts that are true or false. Beyond this point there is a fine line between documentary and propaganda. A gray area, that depends on who’s watching the documentary, their beliefs and reality.

To the extent that Stone’s interviews appear natural and not rehearsed South Of The Border qualifies as a political documentary. The difficulty is that there is little factual support produced for what Chavez and others claim has happened and for what they are doing now. This does not mean that what they are saying is false; it only means that you have to take their word for it. So this film is more of a series of conversations than a documentary film. In all fairness the sub title for the film says “Oliver Stone Reports. You Decide.” Still it would have been helpful to have more information to consider. There are a couple of short quotes from supporters of Chavez. Also a mysterious clip of Michael Moore lambasting Wolf Blitzer of CNN for not asking the right questions of the Bush administration and causing the US to get embroiled in Iraq.

To some, South Of The Border might be considered propaganda, however, the POV of the film is clear and the film furnishes the viewer with an alternative to the propaganda from the other side. In this respect it accomplishes a great deal, by presenting an alternative viewpoint.  With a running time of seventy-eight minutes South Of The Border could have furnished more first person viewpoints from the citizens of each of these countries or local opposition view points to those of the leaders interviewed. Doing so would have pushed the film into a holistic political documentary context.

Past US interference in the affairs of many South Of The Border countries is well documented but not always common knowledge in the United States. South Of The Border looks at some of these intrusions and the resentment felt by the people of these countries. It is educational and informative and is a non condesending view of these South American leaders and their countries.

J R Martin

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