When you say no to a bank, what is it like?
Oliver Stone’s South of the Border begins with easy target Gretchen Carlson not quite understanding what she’s reading. How can it be, she mock-marvels, that Hugo Chávez, that notorious nutcase, has admitted he chews cocoa every morning? Her co-hosts on Fox & Friends point out that she’s supposed to pronounce it “coca,” everyone has a hearty TV show chuckle, and Stone weighs in: “Millions of people watch these shows consistently, night and day, throughout North America. Do they believe what they see? I hope not.”
Immediately following, the documentary lays in with a series of zippy-zappy TV clips, a montage that’s not quite as clever as those Stone assembled for Natural Born Killers, but makes a similar point. Media images can’t be trusted. And so, Stone insinuates, trust mine instead.
The irony seems obvious, but the documentary appears oblivious. Stone will not only sort out and present the truth regarding Hugo Chávez, but he will also go on to interview the Venezuelan president’s fellow South American leftists, so they all have a chance to present themselves in North American media. So, Stone rides in Chávez’s red jeep, observing how he greets his cheering fans and rides a bike. Chávez points to a building where, in 1992, he and a group of junior military officers planned what Stone describes as an “unsuccessful rebellion to topple the government.” Chávez turns to Stone: “I could have died there,” he says. “Some of my men died there.” Stone nods, “As an ex-soldier, I understand.”
This would be the most determinedly somber of the several bonding moments in South of the Border, and as such, it’s a little unnerving. The melodramatic close-ups of so-earnest faces and bullet holes suggest that this film is fully immersed in precisely the image manipulations it would seem to be challenging. It’s no doubt true that U.S. and European media regularly demonize Chávez (and here the film includes the usual bits—“You are a donkey, Mr. Bush,” or again, “It still smells of sulfur” at the UN). But an effective critique of such media—as an industry, as a commercial process, as a means of state propaganda—might benefit from a self-aware, even self-reflective approach.
That’s not to say Stone’s friendliness with his subjects is unusual, or that subjectivity is not typical in documentaries as well as news. It is to say that the coziness here is vaguely perverse, coming as it does alongside the running critique of “media.” Furthermore, while Stone does appear to take himself and his own (relative) objectivity very seriously, it’s hard to pin down where performances begin or end, or how such parameters might matter.
If the film doesn’t exactly answer that question, it does ask a few others, not always disingenuously. “Who is Hugo Chávez and where did he come from?” asks Stone by way of introducing his version of the story. As Tariq Ali (one of two writers credited with South of the Border‘s script) puts it, “Chávez didn’t drop from the sky: he was produced within the Army when the Army was used to massacre its own people.” That is, he emerged as a leader after the Venezuelan economy collapsed, and President Carlos Andrés Pérez instituted IMF’s structural adjustment programs, leading to the Caracazo riots in 1989. The film lays out a brief history of Venezuela’s tangles with the IMF and CIA, as well as a series of Chávez’s highly effective soundbites, when he as arrested in 1992 and then when he ran for president as a Bolivarian in 2002. Cutting between statements by Bush administration officials condemning Chávez and crowd scenes/street interviews that attest to his popularity, the documentary doesn’t detail policies, controversies, or even specific events as much as it outlines a broad ideology.
Seeking context for Chávez, Stone sits down with Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Along with another lesson on “media” (“Media always to criminalize those in the fight against Neoliberalism, colonialism, and imperialism”), Stone nods and smiles when Morales teaches him how to chew coca leaves (Stone explains that with the country’s high altitude, coca eases “the strain on the body”). Whether the guys are bonding earnestly or performing bonding, Stone looks downright smitten as Morales asserts, “The War on Drugs is part of the U.S. geopolitical interests.” No. Really?
Subsequent sit-downs are increasingly short, as Stone appears to pop in for a few minutes with the current leaders of Brazil (Lula da Silva), Argentina (Cristina and Néstor Kirchner), Paraguay (Fernando Lugo), and Cuba (Raúl Castro). None of their exchanges reveals much more than their admiration for Chávez’s example of standing up to the IMF and the U.S. “In a multilateral world,” Néstor Kirchner says, “You can’t have just one power decide for everyone. (He adds that he’s made a similar point to his friend Hugo: “You can’t only have one candidate.”)
Each exchange is cursory and highly performative (Stone even invites Morales out to kick a soccer ball around), revealing precious little “truth.” It’s surely helpful to see Chávez and his peers outside of their usual derisive media frames. But this is, after all, another frame, another stage, and another show.