Saturday, July 31, 2010

"South of the Border" by Oliver Stone, some criticisms

Hey there,

Just got out of "South of the Border" by Oliver Stone and I have to say that while it wasn't really bad it wasn't nearly as good as I imagined it to be. I stood as a kind of mediocrity, somewhere in the middle. The film is Stone's attempt to chart the movement to the left that South America has been engaged in since Hugo Chavez defeated the coup attempt in 2002. To do this he interviews Chavez, Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Lula de Silva, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, and Raul Castro. While the premise is interesting, and something that obviously had a lot of potential to really be turned into a top rate film, Stone and his writers treated the film like it was a fifteen minute radio or TV piece as opposed to an hour and a half long movie that could get into the real details about political life in South America. I think he started to go wrong, in the preparation for the movie, when he made the judgment call that Chavez was the leader of all of the movements for social justice in South America that have yielded the elections of progressive people, and that all of these countries are bound in some sort of Chavez inspired or lead unity. All of the countries in question, including Venezuela itself, have rich traditions of organizing for social change that lead to the changes in government that have happened. None of it, including Chavez' actions, were produced by charismatic leaders themselves, but through the combination of movements of regular people with folks who came into leadership positions, either very willingly or not.

Stone starts out the film focusing on Venezuela, and provides some valuable background about Hugh Chavez and Venezuela before his election and then after the defeat of the coup attempt, topics that the excellent movie "The Revolution Won't be Televised" doesn't cover. But then when the figure of Chavez as a popular leader is established Stone doesn't make the transition from talking about Chavez as a person to actually going into the policies and programs that Chavez has put into place. There's only a reference to the nationalization of some of the oil companies and a trip out with Chavez to a communal farm, plus a brief mention that Cuban doctors come to Venezuela. Instead of talking about the experiments going on there, and about the different ideas that are percolating, we get treated to a scene about his grandmother, a visit to the location of his early childhood home, and a scene where Chavez talks about the people who died in the coup attempt. What has Chavez done? Similarly, talks of human rights violations aren't dealt with but are dismissed on the grounds that Columbia, which is in the middle of a civil war, does much worse. Okay, that may be the case, but at least give some detail about what's been alleged and what actually seems to have happened. The same lack of detail plagues the coverage of Simon Bolivar himself. We know that Chavez really likes Bolivar, and we know that Bolivar headed the liberation struggle from Spain, but no detail about how Bolivar's overall philosophy or attitude translates into Chavez's movement is given. There's no elaboration even of what 'Bolivarianism' in Chavez' usage means. This link to the Bolivarianism article on Wikipedia provides much more information on what Chavez stands for than the entire section devoted to Venezuela in "South of the Border" does.

With that out of the way, lets look at the other players covered in the movie. Of the six heads of state interviewed I thought that Evo Morales and Fernando Lugo came out as being the best, with Raul Castro getting honorable mention, Lula de Silva doing good, and then the Kirchners and Correa being on the bottom. Morales was able to make a case for Bolivia and for social justice that while acknowledging Chavez was clearly based on independent principles. Lugo too, although the interview was much too brief, had a unique and integrity based approach to things, this brought in from Liberation Theology. The Kirchners I viewed as snakes who didn't really believe in what they were saying but who were instead mouthing slogans in order to get popular support. We have the Kirchner dynasty going on, with first Nestor and now Cristina ruling Argentina. In point of fact, and I should modify myself here, it was Cristina Kirchner who came out as more of the snake, willing to mouth revolutionary slogans while in fact being a middle or upper middle class lawyer who went through the conventional political system and then became president because of her husband. Nestor Kirchner came off as a mildly anti-global centrist, not as a revolutionary, which is good because that's what he basically is. Neither of the Kirchners were known to me as being particularly radical before I found out about their inclusion in the movie.

Correa came out as a slick politician who was basically pro-US but who made a little bit of a mark and a PR impact by refusing to reauthorize a US base in Ecuador, and by suggesting that if the U.S. wants to put a base in Ecuador that Ecuador should be able to put a base in Miami. When pressed, he didn't really have much to say, certainly nothing about internal policy beyond a half hearted commitment to reduce the influence of the DEA in Ecuador in relation to the drug trade. Seemed to be using the film for self promotion, as Cristina Kirchner was apparently doing.

Lula was good. He wasn't particularly revolutionary, but he does support progressive reform in South America, and he does come from both the tradition of union organizing and from the PT, the Workers' Party, which painstakingly constructed grass roots popular power in Brazil before winning the presidency. He's less intense than Chavez, but that's just who he is. Lots of people, myself included, were very optimistic about de Silva when he got elected, but the issue isn't any sort of serious turn of face or betrayal as much as it is a kind of watering down of the original policies.

Raul Castro came out doing very well as well, sort of as the grand old man of Latin American politics. I actually wish there had been more time with him and with Cuba in general. Cuba is not a free society politically, but Raul Castro certainly knows his stuff, and has a better idea of what's going on than the hazy populism that Stone sometimes advocates seems to contain.

That said, I think some of the problems in the film came through looking at the heads of state specifically instead of also interviewing some of the members of the popular movements. Politicians are politicians, and no matter who they are you can only get so much out of them, especially if like in my opinion Cristina Kirchner they see opportunity for self advancement as part of the deal.

It also presented as a sort of accepted fact positions that in the course of any presentation should be argued for. Journalism is supposed to be journalism, even if the people involved have their own ideas, are very passionate about them, and don't shy away from letting their viewers, listeners, or readers know what they are. Being committed to your ideas doesn't get you off the hook of having to justify them in your work.

But, see it.

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