Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hasta La Vista, Gringos: Oliver Stone Goes South

Talk about verisimilitude! Oliver Stone’s first crack at capitalism run amok was Wall Street, in 1987. That hit film came out one year after Salvador, his feverish drama about a boozy photojournalist covering war-torn Central America. This month, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (read Kevin Courrier's review here), a sequel that’s also raking in big bucks at the box office, is hot on the heels of his 2009 examination of a region closer to the Equator than El Salvador: Latin America. South of the Border, a documentary, travels with him through six countries as he interviews democratically elected leaders whose left-leaning perspectives probably alarm the U.S. government.

Stone’s conversations with the foreign presidents – Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Lula da Silva of Brazil, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Rafael Correa of Ecuador – trace the legacy of U.S. intervention and interference in their respective nations. Past coups are a particular sore spot, as is the often detrimental influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an intergovernmental organization that oversees global financial systems. In fact, a near-coup took place in Ecuador on September 30, 2010. Correa was teargassed and roughed up by police protesting pay cuts for civil servants. He was rescued the army, which remains loyal, and has since declared a state of siege. Quick, somebody call Oliver Stone!

Border producer Mark Weisbrot – co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC – suggested during a recent telephone interview that much of the information about those rebellious lands in the south is distorted by the mainstream media up north. The doc uses television clips to back up that thesis. When not calling Chavez and Morales “dictators,” a few Fox News dim bulbs are unable to distinguish between cocoa, the comforting warm beverage, and coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. There’s a suggestion that Chavez is “more dangerous than bin Laden.”

Cristina Kirchner
On camera, the pudgy Venezuelan seems disinterested in jihad; instead, ego and mischievousness appear to guide him. (Archival footage of his 2006 speech at the United Nations General Assembly is a hoot: “The devil came here yesterday,” Chavez says, referring to George W. Bush. “It still smells of sulphur today.”) While boastfully showing Stone around his hometown of Sabaneta, he rides a child-size bicycle that quickly collapses – trying to recapture one’s youth is rarely a good idea.

Not as full of himself, Evo Morales offers Stone a chew of the coca leaves that are a mild stimulant in plant form, but less tasty than hot chocolate. Arguably more sober, Cristina Kirchner comes across as a feminist with sound notions for reforming Argentina. She succeeded her husband, Nestor, who recalls that Bush told him in 2003, “the best way to revitalize an economy is with war.” Such thought-provoking observations about the Dubya diablo – whose checkered reign is explored in the 2006 Stone biopic W. do not take into account that Ronald Reagan’s proxy conflicts in Central America were equally ill-advised, albeit not quite as bloody as Bush’s push into the Middle East.

Progressive Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated in 1980 by right-wing death squads, an event Stone depicted in Salvador. In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo is a Catholic bishop with a similar background in Liberation Theology, the social-justice movement that took root in South America during the 1960s. Lula da Silva, a former labor union figure and political prisoner, is hoping Brazil and its neighbors can someday form an alliance like the European Union. When the U.S. wanted to establish a military base in his country, Rafael Correa was sassy enough to tell them that would be okay if they allowed Ecuador to build one in Miami.

These apparently enlightened politicians are well aware that they must strike a balance between floundering Cuban ideology and dwindling American hegemony. “We want to be ourselves,” Chavez says. “It is possible to change the course of history.” Even people who hope that’s true, and think of him as an unfairly maligned hero, might find  Border a bit lightweight. At 102 minutes, this is a whirlwind journey through diverse cultures and complex issues. Stone is entitled to his point of view, of course, but why not spend the extra time making a comprehensive and persuasive case for it? Although staying under two hours may be the only way to go theatrically, 2010 holds out many additional entertainment-communication options. He should have remembered Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 pronouncement, because the medium is still inextricable from the message. Then again, the public's short attention span no doubt means a longer version of the Stone oeuvre would simply be seen as more preaching to the choir.

Perhaps hoping to demonstrate objectivity, after crafting Comandante, a 2003 doc that was widely criticized as being soft on communism, Stone shot Looking for Fidel, a 2004 TV expose of Havana’s crackdown on dissidents. The current non-fiction film includes a very brief visit with his clean-shaven brother Raul, whose comment about the 1959 revolution’s anniversary is, “We’re ready for another 50 years!” The next half-century is off to a good start, democracy-wise. The siblings have recently signalled they’re ready for a significant change in the island’s economic direction. Good-bye, 500,000 cushy government jobs. Hello, encouraging private enterprise.

While no Spanish-speaking Gordon Gekko is likely to emerge anytime soon in this Caribbean socialist workers' paradise, the tilt toward a freer free market probably heartens South America’s current crop of forward-thinking presidents. If only the imperialism of bygone days could give way to some sort of fresh paradigm. “I hope Obama will be a new Roosevelt,” Chavez says during the documentary’s 2008 interview, indicating his admiration for the wisdom of Franklin Delano rather than the big-stick policies of Teddy. Dream on, Hugo.

“As we speak, America is spending tens of million of dollars” to covertly undermine Venezuela and Bolivia, contends Mark Weisbrot, who co-wrote the South of the Border shooting script with Tariq Ali. “We all had great hopes for Obama, but things may be getting even worse now.” Stone, on the other hand, is experiencing a career surge and not just with his update on the goodness of greed. Despite its controversial content, Border – after a successful run, heading for DVD release on October 26 – has fared well. “Oliver made six documentaries and none ever got into movie theaters before this,” Weisbrot notes. “We’re pretty happy.”

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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