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Oliver Stone Takes Americans 'South of the Border', Humanizes Latin American Leaders

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66ème Festival du Cinéma de Venise (Mostra), 6ème jour (07/09/2009)
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66ème Festival du Cine'ma de Venise (Mostra), 6ème jour (07/09/2009) by nicogenin

For anyone wondering what the way out of struggles in America may be, director Oliver Stone's documentary, South of the Border, is a conversation starter. It's a film with the potential to push Americans to assess not only the way the U.S. acts and behaves toward Latin America but also how Americans are expected to reject the social movements of Latin America.

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This documentary, written by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), and Tariq Ali, author of Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, shows how much of the continent has been raised out of poverty and thrown off agendas of privatization promoted by world organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Simultaneously, it challenges media representations of Latin America in the U.S. media.

The film opens with a clip from the show Fox & Friends, which airs on Fox News. The clip shows a conversation that the show's hosts--Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Gretchen Carlson--had over Hugo Chavez, leader of Venezuela, and his use of coca leaves. The hosts liken Chavez's use of the leaves to the use of cocaine, suggesting cocaine comes from the leaves, and caricaturize him as a drug addict even though the leaves are not cocaine. The media misrepresentation serves as a launch pad into the first stop on Stone's road trip through South America, which is Venezuela.

Stone spends more time in Venezuela than in the other countries featured in the film. That's because Venezuela has really been the catalyst for the leftist and left-leaning social movements that have sprung up and made South America a continent of people willing to fight for an alternative way forward in the world. It's also because, as Stone highlights in the film, the U.S. was involved in a coup in 2002, which sought to remove Hugo Chavez from power and replace him with someone more suitable to America and other world organizations like the IMF.

After Venezuela, Stone's trip leads him to meet Evo Morales in Bolivia, Cristina Kirchner and her husband and former president Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Raul Castro in Cuba. His access to these leaders appears to be virtually unlimited and the leaders comfort around him appear to be at a level which allows them to speak very openly about the countries they lead and their country's relationship with the U.S.

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Stone adds some very nice flourishes to many segments in the countries. With Chavez, he asks him to get on a bike and remember what it was like when he was a boy. He asks Morales to show him how to consume coca leaves (which when chewed release a stimulant and help people deal with the effects of the high altitude in Bolivia) because he and his crew are having trouble adapting to the altitude. He asks Cristina Kirchner about how many shoes she has (and she challenges Stone by saying something about how you'd ask a woman about shoes but you'd ask a man about something else of more importance).

The role of Cuba in the film is interesting. Stone wants to place a lot of credit in the hands of Cuba and denote the country's leaders as responsible for influencing many of the social movements in South America. Raul Castro is reluctant to take that credit. He does, however, outline three things he thinks Obama must do in relation to Latin America: end the embargo on Cuba, bring peace to the Middle East, and welcome Chavez to the U.S.

Use of media clips in the film put the exclamation point on the framings and ways stories about Latin America have been distorted. How Colombia and Chile and the U.S. relationships with those countries create friction with other countries on the continent really demonstrates the threat that these countries pose to U.S. dominance in the region.

It's noted that, historically, the U.S. has been able to heavily influence Latin America and enjoy the good fortune of leaders who were receptive to working with them to defend U.S. interests. The rise of leaders who are willing to represent the people of South America is an obvious risk to the America as a superpower and the "Washington Consensus" that has been developed to protect certain interests.

The election of President Obama is highlighted toward the end of the documentary. Earlier in the film, Cristina Kirchner tells Stone that here, on this continent, for once the presidents look like the people. There is a natural emotional reaction to seeing President Obama that makes one wish the fact that he looks more like the people in America would have meant change would take place. All it shows to those knowledgeable of political issues is that skin color doesn't automatically mean you will stand up for the poor, working and middle classes.

In a scene filmed with days left in the Bush Administration, Chavez reminds Stone at the end of the movie that change can be done. Over the course of history, struggles and movements can make a difference just like they have in his country of Venezuela, just like the people of Bolivia did when they stoop up to Bechtel and fought against the privatization of their water (and just like gays and lesbians in Argentina just did now that Argentina has legalized gay marriage).

This is a film that should be required viewing for anyone being taught about history in South America. Unfortunately, the responses and reviews of this film have been atrocious. They have been a direct indication of the political immaturity of this country and also proof of how media manufactures consent. (But, given the current media response to Oliver Stone's alleged "anti-Semitic" remark, is anyone surprised?)

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Stone and others have produced a "labor of love" that challenges the myths, which we Americans typically believe. It humanizes the leaders of South America and dispels many of the myths we harbor as a result of media distortions and perceptions. And, we owe Stone for going on this journey to bring us true insight into how people are rising up to take control of their very lives; what they are doing should inspire all Americans and, really, that's why a documentary like this has been trashed so much by media.

South of the Border will continue to open in cities all over the country, but it will not enjoy the wide distribution that it should have. Check the South of the Border documentary website to see if it is opening in your area (although it's likely that the film already came through your city).

For more on how this film takes on media coverage of Latin America, listen to this interview on the "Media Matters" show with host Robert McChesney and guest Mark Weisbrot, co-writer of South of the Border.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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