Director Stone leaves no passion unstoked, and Silverdocs film is no exception

A collection of Oliver Stone's films through the years as the legendary director prepares to debut his new documentary "South of the Border," an exploration of South America's leftist politics.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

There's something strangely appropriate about the fact that, a scant five weeks after talking about capitalism in Cannes -- while presenting the world premiere of "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" -- Oliver Stone is heading to Washington to talk about socialism in Latin America. "From Cannes to Cochabamba," Stone says with a laugh during a phone conversation this week. "It's glorious."

Cochabamba would be the city in Bolivia where the director spent time while filming "South of the Border," his polemical, personal, deeply passionate love letter to left-leaning movements that have recently taken hold in the region. The documentary is an on-the-fly travelogue in which Stone meets and greets such leftist leaders as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Ecuador's Rafael Correa.

"South of the Border" was born of Stone's longtime interest in Latin America and abiding disenchantment with U.S. foreign policy and mainstream media. The film, scheduled to open in Washington July 2, will have its local premiere Wednesday at the Silverdocs documentary festival, where Stone will be on hand to answer questions.

And there will be questions.

In "South of the Border," Stone makes no pretense of objectivity. Devoting most of the film to Chávez, he makes no secret of his infatuation with the populist leader, at one point filming him at Chávez's childhood home and "directing" him in a scene riding a kid's bike. Stone doesn't interview Venezuelan dissidents, or anyone who disagrees with Chávez's policies, which have recently included a bid to become president for life and revoking the license of television stations critical of his regime.

Stone does address the troubling issue of human rights abuses in Venezuela -- but only to remind viewers that Colombia has an even worse record and that because it's an ally in the war on drugs, it basically gets a free pass.

"I interviewed Chávez because I thought he's an underdog and he's getting the shaft," Stone says simply. "Because he's a democratically elected leader and he's getting a bum rap. The elections in Venezuela have been monitored to death. They have electronic and paper ballots. It's the cleanest system I've ever seen. And we're condemning them? After how Bush got elected in 2000? It makes me angry, this double standard, this hypocrisy."

Stone met Chavez in 2007 but has had an enduring interest in Latin America since the 1980s, when he began researching "Salvador," in which James Woods starred as a journalist covering the brutal military dictatorship in that country. It was "shocking what I heard and saw" about U.S. policy in the region, Stone recalls of that time.

"I knew America was up to no good in Central America," he says, "with the death squads in El Salvador and support for the contras in Nicaragua and troops all over Honduras. It was like Vietnam all over again," says the director, a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Stone went on to make such pivotal historical dramas as "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "JFK," but his interest in radical politics didn't wane. In 2003, he made the documentary "Comandante," about Fidel Castro, followed by "Looking for Fidel" in 2004. (He also made a documentary about Yasser Arafat, "Persona Non Grata.")

"I love working in [documentary]," Stone says. "It's really just an extension of what I do when I was doing features. I'd go out and research, research, research, like with 'Scarface' and 'JFK.' In 'Wall Street,' I talked to all the bankers I could. So doing documentaries is a form of research, and it's also a form of staying humble -- working close, fast, cheaply. Otherwise, I get too rarefied. You make features for a year with actors, costumes, sets, scripts, and it gets too Hollywood for me."

Despite the literal and psychic miles between Cannes and Cochabamba, though, Stone's "Wall Street" sequel and "South of the Border" turn out to be surprisingly similar. Both capture the fallout from years of free-market capitalism, which was largely unfettered by deregulation at home and encouraged around the globe by such institutions as the International Monetary Fund.

Where "Money Never Sleeps" chronicles the effect of unhinged speculation on Wall Street and Main Street, "South of the Border" profiles leaders who came to power out of dissatisfaction with the privatization and liberalized trade policies advocated by the U.S. government and the IMF. (Like every Oliver Stone film, "South of the Border" contains at least one outrageous claim. At one point, Néstor Kirchner recalls a private conversation with President George W. Bush during an economic summit, in which he says Bush dismissed the Marshall Plan as "a crazy idea of the Democrats" and promoted war as the best way to revitalize an economy.)

Chávez and his counterparts, Stone argues, represent a positive step toward political and economic autonomy in a region that's been under America's thumb since the 19th century. "They've been playing along for years because they had dozens of coups and interventions and occupations and we keep getting our way," Stone says. "This is the first time that six gigantic countries have gotten together and said: 'We don't want America's involvement. We don't want you.' "

It's likely that Chávez's critics will turn out at Wednesday's "South of the Border" screening to challenge Stone's version of history. By now he's used to that and notes cheerfully, "I haven't been shot yet."

South of the Border

will be shown Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Admission is $10. Visit

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