PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'South of the Border': Oliver Stone Takes on Hugo Chávez

Oliver Stone's South of the Border features earnest bonding moments, performative and a little unnerving.

South of the Border

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Tariq Ali, Raúl Castro, Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, Fernando Lugo
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Libre Studio
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-06-25 (Limited release)

When you say no to a bank, what is it like?

-- Oliver Stone

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.