Cinema Libre // 2009 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 13th, 2010
"There's a revolution underway in South America."
In all the debates that have raged about socialized medicine and socialism more generally, the media almost always looks either north (to Canada) or across the Atlantic (to Europe). Because of that, it's easy to forget sometimes that we live just north ourselves from a number of countries that have been trending toward the Left for decades now. It's also easy to forget because more often than not the leaders of those countries are portrayed rather poorly in the American media. With South of the Border, the notoriously left-leaning Oliver Stone hopes to correct that portrayal by visiting seven of South America's democratically elected presidents. Although Stone gets some credit for making the trip, he opts to present a wholly positive view of South America's leaders, which only repeats the errors of his enemies in reverse. This leaves those of us looking for a balanced, informative portrait of the region without much to enjoy in South of the Border.
The basic thesis of South of the Border is that the American media, under economic pressure and in collusion with the U.S. government, has radically misrepresented the democratically elected leaders of South America. Because he can, Stone throws in Cuba as well. In an effort to correct this, Oliver Stone travels to seven of these countries to interview their presidents, from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Raul Castro in Cuba. By showing these men (and woman) as impassioned, articulate people, Stone hopes to overcome the negative stereotypes that dominate the media.
The one huge success of South of the Border is that it definitively proves that the presidents in South America (at least the ones Stone interviewed), are not great horned devils who can't go more than five seconds without spouting anti-American rhetoric. There ends the benefits of South of the Border. I am honestly sympathetic to Stone's point. I don't think being against American interference in one's country automatically equates with terrorism, support of terror, or anything like that. I am truly skeptical of what I hear in the news about any country that has a rich oil supply, knowing that such oil produces a huge economic incentive to portray that country falsely. And yet, I can't rally behind Stone's film. He seems to endorse a clip from a Michael Moore interview where Moore lambasts a journalist for not asking the hard questions in the early days of the war in Iraq. However, there's not a single hard question put to any one of the seven presidents interviewed in this film. Stone presents no evidence that all the opponents of these leaders are shills for international business interests, so the fact there are protestors against all these leaders must mean something. Stone refuses to give any credence to the other side, preferring to kick around a soccer ball with Evo Morales. The lack of a balanced portrait of South American politics makes this film a little hard to love for those looking to be informed.
Michael Moore's presence in the film is certainly not an accident. Oliver Stone is following the Moore mold here, appearing on camera to talk with these leaders and comment on their portrayal in the American media. Stone, though, lacks one thing that Moore has in spades: wit. Whether Moore was putting his goofy persona at the center of the film (Roger and Me), or making light of absurd situations (like getting a gun when you open a checking account in Bowling for Columbine), his films are entertaining no matter where the viewer falls on the political spectrum. Aside from a few odd moments (like when Stone and the crew have to receive oxygen at the airport in La Paz because of the altitude), there's no position Stone holds except apparent admiration for these presidents. This makes the film boring if you don't agree with him, and redundant if you do.
A couple moments almost make the film worth watching by themselves. The first is when the president of Ecuador says he's agree to the United States putting a military base in Ecuador if Ecuador could build a military base in Miami. The second is when Stone compares Fidel's role in the Cuban revolution to the old man's in The Old Man in the Sea. In both cases, he says, these men caught these huge, improbable things, but by the time they got back to the city they had been eaten away. This might be one of the most poetic observations on revolution ever uttered.
As a DVD release, South of the Border is pretty solid. The video transfer is clean and bright with no artefacting or compression problems. The film doesn't show off Stone's usual hyper-kinetic visual style, but there are enough clips incorporated from various sources that we don't forget who's at the controls. The audio is a simple 5.1 mix that keeps all the dialogue easy to discern. Since most of Stone's interviewees speak in Spanish there are subtitles for us English speakers. Extras include a 20-plus-minute promotional piece on Stone's travels, an extra 17 minutes of Stone interviewing Hugo Chavez, a short piece on reforms for the poor in Venezuela, deleted scenes, and two South American television interviews with Stone. Although they don't fundamentally alter the problems with the documentary, their variety provides some interesting context for Stone's South American excursion.
On the back of this DVD, former governor Jesse Ventura is quoted as saying "This film should be mandatory viewing for every high school senior in the United States." Although I see his point, I have to disagree. Certainly students should get a balanced, informed view of South America and the U.S. involvement with the area, but sadly South of the Border isn't that view. It presents the two sides of the debate as either (for instance) "Chavez is a monster supporting terrorism" or "Chavez is a saintly and benevolent leader, working hard for the poor of Venezuela." The truth is almost certainly somewhere in a middle that South of the Border ignores. Even if one could get past the political message, the documentary itself just isn't that interesting, offering too little of Stone's personality and too little time with each presidente. It might be worth a rental to the curious, but it's not a great document of South American politics.
South of the Border is guilty of being as one-sided as its opponents in presenting the truth of South American politics.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes