This weekend, Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border, his ode to Hugo Chavez and South and Latin America’s new quasi-Marxist and not so quasi dictators, has opened in New York City and Los Angeles, and will open nationwide in a week. It had a showing this past Wednesday at the AFI Silverdocs Festival in the Washington, D.C., area, and my article about it appears today in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. I argue therein: “What Mr. Stone and his writers have presented is a standard far-left narrative that is part of a long line of propaganda films, a modern American version of the old agitprop. There are no dissenting voices in this film. Nor is there any mention of the fact that Mr. Chávez has closed down television and radio stations that disagree with him and arrested dissenting political figures.” The film is what you can expect from the likes of Oliver Stone, a virtual know-nothing who uses his celebrity and acclaim as a film director to spew out hatred for the country that has made him wealthy and influential.
Writing in the New York Times, Larry Rohter came up with many other examples of distortions and omissions in the movie. He notes that the “78-minute South of the Border is meant to be a documentary, and therefore to be held to different standards. But it is plagued by the same issues of accuracy that critics have raised about his movies, dating back to JFK. Taken together, the mistakes, misstatements and missing details could undermine Mr. Stone’s glowing portrait of Mr. Chávez.” Rohter goes on to pinpoint some of these in stunning detail.
Unfortunately, his film has been for some strange reason convincing otherwise intelligent people that in this effort, Stone has shown nuance. The most egregious is the review of the film appearing at the Daily Beast, written by Allen Barra. His title, “When Did Oliver Stone Become Sensible?,” tells you all you need to know about Barra’s take. The answer to his question, of course, is that Stone did not.
But Barra does not pause, as I did and Larry Rohter has done, to raise any questions at all about Stone’s claims and methodology. Instead, Barra writes that “Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border is an even-tempered, cant-free look at a topic that has just about everyone north of the border, no matter what side of the political spectrum, foaming at the mouth.” He goes on to even call Stone “the most sensible guy on the block.”
That is the problem with so-called documentaries. They are not objective, as many people think they are or should be. It is to Stone and writer Tariq Ali’s credit that they admit this freely. As Ali told Rohter: “It’s hardly a secret that we support the other side. It’s an opinionated documentary.” Ali’s rationale does not hold water. Anyone watching the movie sees a narrative that presents their argument as total truthful fact, not as biased agitprop written to defend totalitarianism and Marxism. That is why someone like Barra can fall for it and believe it is nuanced and even-handed.
Of course, Barra reveals much about his own ignorance, writing: “They are all socialists who have distanced themselves in varying degrees from Marxism, they have all been democratically elected, and they have all been demonized, more or less, with Chavez representing the more and Lula, characterized as the closest to the center, the less.” In fact, most of them, especially Chavez, have not distanced themselves from Marxism. Chavez recently proclaimed himself a Trotskyist (the late Bolshevik, upon hearing this, certainly turned over in his grave) and the others, while elected, have to varying degrees endorsed Chavez and sought to replicate his anti-democratic methods. Of the group, Lula in fact has proved moderate, has alienated his left-wing base, and has until the recent agreement with Iran, worked with the United States.
Barra’s article is so weak that his own further apologias for Chavez are a complete embarrassment, and it reflects poorly on Tina Brown’s decision to let such a poor piece of journalistic analysis (written by a useful idiot of Chavez and Stone) to even appear on their website, especially after Rohter’s article in the Times.
At the panel after the film’s showing at the AFI last week, Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the audience and Stone that his film was a “fundamental disservice” to the truth, and was as distorted a picture of reality as Stone thinks Fox News and the regular media is. “This film,” she said, “is far from reality. It is a distortion of what it means to be on the Left in Latin America.” She noted that, contrary to the film’s claim, a genuine moderate left was taking a path quite different than that favored by Chavez and Castro. Moreover, she added, it is wrong on the facts, slighting Chile whose moderate government reduced poverty far more than any other country, including Venezuela. In a country like Brazil or Chile, left parties emerged in a democratic transition as part of a stable system, while in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, they emerged as the result of the collapse of democracy, and featured the absence of any limitations on power. They failed to create a desire for social and economic justice with “any measure of democratic transparency.”
Strangely, the Times film critic wrote his own positive review of the film one day earlier. Given Rohter’s article, that must also prove embarrassing to the paper and to critic Stephen Holden. Although Holden argued that Stone had “muted” his paranoid tendencies revealed in films like JFK, he did add that it was a “provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism.” But he even includes mention of an obviously false assertion made by the former president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, that “President Bush became irate at the suggestion that what the country needed was a Marshall Plan and insisted that the best way to revitalize an economy was through war.” Only an already committed leftist watching the film who hates George W. Bush could believe that Bush could have said anything like that. Holden concludes his review arguing that Stone’s film is a “naïvely idealistic, introductory tutorial on a significant international trend,” although it is not idealistic, and anything but a sound tutorial.
Stone, as he told Rohter, thinks his film is a “counter” to the “unbalance” and the “years and years of blighted journalism” that Americans read. Actually, Stone’s film is simply another in a long line of left-wing propaganda that has had more influence and effect on U.S. audiences that any critical accounts of the far left in these countries.
One major source answering Stone on one of his main points can be found in a film answering an earlier pro-Chavez movie called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The film is called X-Ray of a Lie; its alternate title is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised-Lies. It means watching a one and a half hour film on your computer, if you do not have a mechanism to stream the film to your TV. But it is well worth it, since Stone’s film essentially contains many of the same lies as the earlier film.
Finally, you should not miss the incredible BBC Hardtalk interview conducted by the fearless BBC reporter Stephen Sackur, who, unlike his US counterparts, knows how to ask the tough questions to Hugo Chavez, and who confronts him head on with his lies, obfuscations, and his inability to be honest. You will see Sackur confront Chavez on his arrest of General Baduel, which I referred to in my WSJ op-ed. Fortunately, Chavez has not learned what Fidel Castro would have told him — never agree to be interviewed except by fawning American acolytes like Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, and all the others who have interviewed Castro and failed to confront him about anything meaningful.
Why, I wonder, did Oliver Stone fail to include any of this footage in his new movie? Well here is one answer, from the film critic at the Village Voice (I kid you not — once a NYC leftie paper.) Karina Longworth writes:
The construction of false realities for political gain is the subject of much of Stone’s own work — so why is he content to take each leader’s practiced-for-the-camera spiel at face value, never pushing for information or conducting interviews on any deeper level than a photo op? South of the Border‘s subjects are masters at cooking bullshit, and Stone just eats it up.
Right on, Karina!
Update: Sunday 1:15 pm EST
I usually can’t find the time to reply to comments, but I’m making an exception for the cordial defense of Stone by a colleague of his who notes that he has made two documentary films about Stone, Joel Sucher. (I have not seen the two films he mentions.) Stone does not promote “reasoned dialogue.” Indeed, at the panel held after the showing at the Silverdocs Festival last Wednesday at the AFI in Silver Spring, Md., the organizers saw to it that the panel would lack balance — by having it 3 to 1 in favor of Stone’s film, with only one brave dissenter, Cynthia Arnson, having a small amount of time to challenge the documentary. Moreover, contrary to the usual pattern, no questions or comments were taken from the floor. And although Arnson did as good a job as possible, she had to preface her remarks assuring the audience that she too had nothing but disdain for George W. Bush.
Moreover, to call Stone’s film “courageous” and “curious” is absurd. The film is, not what Sucher claims — not a partisan job “painted in black and white,” but precisely that — a propaganda film for Chavez. The commentaries I cite give chapter and verse of how Stone consciously lies about and distorts evidence, all for the purpose of condemning the United States and praising the quasi-totalitarianism of Venezuela under Chavez. On the WSJ comment page after my op-ed, one person notes that a few years ago, Stone met Chavez at Cannes, where Chavez interviewed him and Michael Moore, for the purpose of seeing who could do a film to promote his policies in Venezuela. Evidently Stone got the assignment. The writer suggests the possibility that Chavez may have not only asked him to do it, but provided the funding. If so, that would make it state funded official propaganda.
In any case, re Sucher’s last paragraph — Stone’s “client” is none other than Chavez and the other Latin American leftists, and he has done a yeoman job on their behalf.