Back in college, when I had finished my third semester studying international affairs and Latin America, I finally began to understand the United States' relationship with our neighbors to the south and just how much the U.S. government had done to interfere in nearly every country in the hemisphere. More than anything, I was in disbelief that I hadn't learned any of this before, and was disappointed my how little information was available to the American public.
Oliver Stone's new documentary South of the Border could have potentially filled the void to help provide useful information about US-Latin American relations, and a brief history and basic snapshot into political trends in the region. Instead, it is an unabashedly one sided view of the rise of socialism in Latin America and mainly a loving ode to Hugo Chavez, although Stone, who evidently does not speak any Spanish, calls him Sha-VEZ during the entire movie. If that doesn't turn you off, the plot likely will.
Stone interviews several leftist Latin American leaders, though he spends the most time with Chavez. He also interviews President Lula, arguably the most powerful leader in Latin America, but spends the least amount of time with him. He also speaks to both Kirchners in Argentina, as well as the presidents of Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Bolivia. He completely ignores Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and doesn't so much as mention him or anything related to Central America. He manages to paint a very rosy picture of Chavez as a sweet but determined everyman who is beloved by most in his country, other than the "evil" media and a minor group of opposition.
In between the interviews, Stone devotes a lot of time discussing Chavez's rise to power and recent Venezuelan history, as told by Chavez and his chavistas. There are also some very funny clips from US TV news shows, particularly FOX and CNN, meant to show how uninformed the US mainstream media is about Latin America. Unfortunately, Stone's version of events and complete unwillingness to show interviews with the opposition or even regular citizens in each country lead the viewer to believe that the film isn't terribly different from those silly news broadcasts.
The film's main flaw, other than the blatant bias, is that it spent very little time actually focusing on the structural changes brought about by leftist movements, in particular extending health care, education, and social benefits to those who previously had little access to them. It completely misses the point about why these leftist leaders have become so popular (other than their charming, "likeable" personalities, which is more than evident in the movie). It makes it seem like Chavez's "bravery" and popularity helped spread the movement in Latin America, giving him much more credit than he is due.
One of the other things that bothered me was Stone's attack on the Latin American media, who he blamed for demonizing the leftist rulers in the same vein as the US media. He also refers to human rights as a "buzz word" and mentions it only in reference to "false claims" of human rights abuses in Venezuela as compared to worse abuses in Colombia. Aside from not understanding what human rights are and how tenuous the balance has become between human rights and democracy during political shifts in the region, Stone clearly does not understand the vitality of a free press. He lumps the media together as an overall negative force that is hindering progress in Latin America, rather than recognizing that some media outlets attempt to exercise the right of free speech and try to combat propaganda from other media conglomerates.
It became clearer how out of touch the director and writers were in the panel discussion after the film, when rabid New York socialists had the opportunity to puxar saco and drone on and on without really asking questions (a few people did, though only one person, an Argentine, really questioned Stone's take on events). One person asked about the status of the transition to socialism in the region, and how each country was progressing, and the people on the panel couldn't quite answer. It made me want to laugh, thinking about Brazil or Argentina as a "socialist" country in the Chavez model. In all, I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes, at both the movie and the excitable people in the audience. But in the end, I was mostly just disappointed. Like several other reviews point out, this was a huge missed opportunity.
Oliver Stone's Latin America in 'South of the Border', New York Times
South of the Border movie review, Star Ledger
South of the Border review, Variety
South of the Border review, AV Club