South of the Border (2009)

Genres - Culture & Society  |   Sub-Genres - Message Movie, Politics & Government  |   Release Date - Jun 25, 2010 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 78 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Alaina O'Connor

In South of the Border, Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone is afforded extraordinary access to Hugo Chávez, Raúl Castro, the Kirchners of Argentina, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, and other heads of state and shines a light on each leader and the situation in each of their countries. Stone's initial approach to the film is to expose how U.S. foreign policy drives the way the mainstream media depicts events around the world. With clips from CNN, Fox News, and other Western media outlets, Stone quickly establishes the hawkish tone and misrepresentation that characterize how news about South American politics and the continent's democratically elected leaders -- who are invariably depicted as dictators -- is reported. Stone continues with a brief history of events in Venezuela that led to the presidency of Hugo Chávez, and as he visits with each South American leader, expresses the idea that Chávez's election sparked a new era of democratic socialism that swept across the continent like dominoes.

There's no pretense of objectivity, and about 15 minutes into the film, Stone makes his first of many onscreen appearances alongside Chávez as they tour around the country visiting Chávez-loving locals and even taking a trip to the place where Chávez grew up. Stone even directs his subject through a humanizing "childhood memories" sequence in an attempt to reveal his lighter, softer side. Stone makes no secret of his fascination with the populist leader and inevitably avoids interviewing Venezuelan dissidents. This omission runs throughout the film, and perhaps the most obvious flaw of South of the Border is Stone's inability to interrogate these leaders, particularly Chávez, with whom he spends the majority of the film. He allows his subjects to direct the course of the conversation, avoiding tough questions on human rights and allegations of corruption, and lets each of the leaders defend their own regimes.

Still, Stone captures a paradigm shift in South America, and there's a common thread between all of the leftist leaders elected in these countries -- they all want political and economic autonomy and to free themselves of centuries of colonial control. During the Bush administration, this idea was much harder to envision, but Stone makes sure to guide South of the Border to a hopeful conclusion and intercuts the election of Barack Obama with footage of the leaders of Latin America gathering at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad -- save Columbia and Mexico, who Stone points out are given a pass by the U.S. government because of their cooperation with the War on Drugs. He later showcases Obama being photographed with Chávez and other leaders.

South of the Border is sure to be criticized, especially by conservatives who hold a zero tolerance policy with countries that refuse to toe the line, but Stone expresses a clear way forward for a continent that has largely shaken off the grip of imperialism. It's not in-depth investigative reporting, but what he offers is an alternative view to one that's been clouded by foreign policy.