Oliver Stone’s politically charged and controversial film, “South of the Border,” cracks through the mainstream media blockade and documents how six South American nations deviated from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s prescribed polices over the last decade. The film humanizes the presidents of these nations, exposes the failure of Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, and other media outlets to provide accurate information on contemporary events in South America, and delivers first-hand information based on Stone’s personal interviews, research, and travel to the featured countries.
The film does not probe into the details of each country’s unique history and policies nor provide a nuanced analysis of why the US government and corporate media wish to hide and crush these popular movements. For this reason, the information provided in the film may seem superficial to knowledgeable activists, but it is significant to a deprived public that usually shows little interest and is largely ignorant about the region. The very fact that mainstream newspapers, magazines, and blogs have vehemently attacked the film reveals the importance of the message Stone propounds and should encourage people of all types to go and see it.
An intriguing part of “South of the Border” is the way it starkly contrasts the reality that Stone observed during his travels against embarrassingly inaccurate, unprofessional, and distorted news coverage. Stone provides ample footage of US reporters referring to democratic and immensely popular presidents as dictators and terrorists, and completely ignoring the central issues such as the IMF. Reporters confuse coca, a medicinal leaf produced widely in Bolivia, with cocoa, while attempting to erroneously classify the former as an illegal drug for the sake of labeling the presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela “drug addicts.” Furthermore, Stone demonstrates how the New York Times and others joined the Bush administration in condoning the April 2002 coup d’état in Venezuela and blatantly covered up facts about the coup, suggesting that the lack of accuracy was not a mistake, but the result of an intentional propaganda campaign.
Perhaps the most impactful aspect of the film is the way it portrays South America’s leaders as human beings and allows them to speak for themselves. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez comes across not as a power-crazed, authoritarian maniac, but an intelligent, down-to-earth, resolute leader from a humble background who rests little and is willing to risk his life for a more just and inclusive society. Bolivian President Evo Morales provoked the US’s wrath not by being a dictator, but by representing his constituency, which is the country’s majority working class and peasant indigenous population, the film shows. Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa committed no greater sin than to deny a US military base on his country’s soil. Presidents Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner’s policies diverged from the banking magnates and helped Argentina overcome a severe financial crisis caused by IMF-prescribed free trade policies. And, Fernandez is not afraid to strike back tactfully against sexist questions posed by the media, Stone discovered. President Fernando Lugo is a gentle and religious man who believes Paraguay’s poor, sick, and oppressed should be society’s first priority. Lugo’s counterparts in Brazil and Cuba defend national sovereignty and the right of South American countries to be themselves, stand on their own two feet, and have their own ideas.
By giving a voice to presidents who are torn apart by US media but rarely given a fair chance to express their views, Stone indirectly gives a voice to the people of those countries. As a result of Stone’s method as well as his unmistakable condemnation of the US media, many viewers will be inspired to seek a deeper understanding of South America and their country’s negative impact in the region, and hone a healthy distrust of the mainstream US media in general.
While Stone’s target audience seems to be the general US public, the film also may be significant for Venezuelans. Those who support President Chavez may view the film as a boost of energy for their movement, a reminder of the broader significance of their everyday actions, and a source of encouragement to remain dedicated to their political ideals amidst adversity and disillusionment. In fact, in one screening followed by a discussion in a theatre in Mérida, Venezuela on July 7th, several people did react this way. There were also opponents of Chavez in the crowd who were challenged to express their opposition to Chavez’s policies without supporting the IMF’s prescribed policies, the devastating consequences of which the film vividly demonstrated. Likewise, several participants in the discussion pointed out that the film could be educational to Venezuelans who, much like typical gringos, are more knowledgeable about baseball and fashion trends than the politics in their own country and in South America.
The film was not without its flaws. Stone over-simplifies some political issues that could have been covered in more complexity without detracting from the film’s broad focus. For instance, all the presidents, including Cuba’s, are grouped into the category of “Bolivarians.” In reality, beyond their common defiance of the IMF, these leaders have different economic and social policies and different degrees of resistance to US hegemony. Stone hints at this when he mentions that Brazil’s changes under President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva have been “more political than structural,” and when he quotes Chavez advocating FDR’s “New Deal.” Unfortunately, though, he refrains from comparing the actual policies of the leaders he interviews. Some of their policies seek to palliate the negative consequences of free market capitalism while keeping the system intact, while others aim toward building a totally new political and economic system. Most countries featured in the film exist in the gray area between the two; the Chavez government, for instance, embraces both types of policies simultaneously. Had the film touched on these concepts, it might have added depth without necessarily discouraging beginners from the subject matter.
Some viewers may also find it problematic that the film is centered on heads of state, and arguably inflates the importance of these leaders’ roles in creating change. It includes very few voices from the grassroots organizations that contribute to South America’s political movements. Ordinary citizens appear in spurts throughout the film, mainly in street demonstrations and in their neighborhoods playing traditional Venezuelan music, but they are not directly interviewed and their experiences are not conveyed. The tremendously popular Barrio Adentro public health care system in Venezuela and the unprecedented amount of small and medium-sized cooperative businesses the government has promoted received about 20 seconds of footage each. Had the film shown more of the concrete achievements of the left-leaning governments as described by the beneficiaries and community organizers, it would have strengthened the credibility of the various presidents’ claims and been a more accurate portrayal of the processes of change that are underway.
Finally, the film’s treatment of the issues of race and gender seems to lack the necessary thoroughness. The main argument put forth is that women, non-white, and working class people are now reaching the highest levels of power. This is certainly a new phenomenon with great symbolic importance, but framing it as substantial change in itself may be tokenistic or essentialist. The crucial point that the film does not make explicit is that, unlike President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and others, female, non-white, and working class politicians in South America are enacting specific policies to empower historically oppressed groups, reverse systemic race and gender oppression, and, in some cases, subvert capitalist exploitation. The idea expounded toward the end of the film that Latin American immigrants in the US might carry the flame of Bolivarianism within them seems to reflect some shaky racial reasoning, as well. It is also important to point out that the people interviewed for expert commentary include no women (except for President Fernandez), and the experiences of women are not well represented in the film.
If Stone’s target audience is the mainstream public that knows pretty much nothing about South America, then the film serves the purpose of provoking its audience to take interest and look beyond what the media feeds them, and hopefully be inspired to take action. The film’s accentuation of the hope inspired by South America’s leftist and progressive leaders is exactly the message that needs to be communicated to a politically disempowered US citizenry, although Stone’s implication that President Obama also embodies this hope is far-fetched considering Obama’s very conservative policies. Committed political activists who are somewhat or very knowledgeable about South American affairs may find that the film did not provide sufficient context or analysis, but the film is nonetheless useful for bringing people together to build a movement in solidarity with the countries portrayed in the film.