THE BIG SCENE : Oliver Stone visits with Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leaders in new doc at SBIFF

Director Oliver Stone during an interview with the President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo.
Director Oliver Stone during an interview with the President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rides a bicycle in his grandmother's backyard in the Oliver Stone documentary "South of the Border."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rides a bicycle in his grandmother’s backyard in the Oliver Stone documentary “South of the Border.”
Film director Oliver Stone first dealt with South and Central America in 1986, with his breakthrough political drama “Salvador.” He didn’t return to the region as a subject until recently, with two documentaries on Fidel Castro (2003’s “Comandante” and 2004’s “Looking for Fidel”). Now he’s taken on another American bugaboo, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in “South of the Border,” playing this weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Stone’s thesis is that Chavez has been demonized in the American press because he hasn’t gone along with business interests, especially when Chavez nationalized the oil industry.

The film then uses Chavez’ success as an opportunity to discuss other socialist revolutions that have followed in Chavez’ wake — in Bolivia, Argentina and Ecuador. The short doc may lack in nuance, but it will introduce many to the leaders in the region, and to countries that never turn up on the nightly news.

Stone will be at the 4 p.m. Saturday screening at the Lobero Theatre to present his film and participate in a Q&A afterward. Like Chavez, Stone isn’t afraid of his critics and doesn’t mind naming names.

A review of the film I read after its showing in Venice mentioned Chavez, but not the second half of the film, about the other countries in South America. I found that rather telling.

Well, I’ve been through this route before. “Comandante” was never shown on HBO, and it was taken off the air two weeks before. “Salvador” barely got out. We treat (South America) like a backyard and I think we have a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation about it. And I think the film does some good because we showed that (Chavez) was not a pariah, as he’s pictured in the United States. He has more allies there than we have. That’s for sure.

Did you get out and about in Venezuela?

Yes. I mean I didn’t do an ethnographic survey, but there’s plenty of people there who would talk to me and who work in the slums. Listen, he’s actually pulled a lot of people up from poverty. The World Bank will verify that . . . it’s a societal volcano that happened. Chavez, with the nationalization of oil, provided a socialist evolution. Well, it’s really a revolution. These people have literacy, they have schools, they have education, they have Cuban doctors, they have health. There’s always problems, but it’s a tremendous change, in this society, from where they were before when they had these corrupt oligarchs running the country.

What was your role when you sat down with Chavez? As a filmmaker? An interviewer? A friend?

I think more of a documentarian, doing a portrait of a guy, hanging out with him. . . . It’s not a documentary that says “look, here’s the revolution in detail.” It’s “here’s a primer, this is what he’s like, here’s the people who support him, basically this is what the IMF has done.” They’re crucial to the story, because they’ve been oppressing South America and the rest of the world, ever since the ’70s. In the ’80s it really went bad because that’s when they started to make these regulations, and it got worse and worse. The first guy was not really Chavez, but (former Argentinean president Nestor) Kirchner, who threw them out. And he repaid the debt. And Nestor is in the film. He’s a very strong guy. He’s an economist, brilliant, smart, he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth as much as Hugo. But Chavez has the story of the coup, and it was directed against him by the (elite), and America was involved, and he had a reason to be pissed off. And unfortunately that’s what gave birth to this war of words.

The most moving part for me is Nestor’s description of finally getting out of the IMF debt.

This is a huge issue. Central banks, because of the IMF and because of U.S. influence, are definitely divorced from the governments down there, much more so than in our country. We break all the rules. We impose conditions on these countries for their loans, but when it comes time when we screw up, we bail ourselves out. So it’s a horrendous double standard. And we’re hypocrites, we really are, we hit these countries with privatization, we keep them in thrall. Kirchner makes the point: “they (the IMF) did not want me to pay it off.” Because they want to keep it that way.

What were your own misconceptions about Chavez that your visit cleared up for you?

I thought “yeah, he’s interesting, he’s colorful, I don’t know what he’s like.” I went around to the other countries and talked to other people who had an interest in him and who liked him — seven countries. Who hates him? Mexico and Columbia. Well, who are they? Well, Columbia is our most military ally, they get $5 billion from us so far to fight the war on drugs, and Mexico is tied to us very deeply. So I think the enemies he has are really American puppets.

Do you think we’re shaping up for a war for oil in the South?

I hope not. Obama’s a different type. But he has not replaced the Latin American department. It’s still those State Department (expletive)s, excuse me, people who work basically for Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t changed a thing. There’s people like James Steinberg making ignorant remarks, and I don’t know if you remember the old Bush White House. They had the worst people. Otto Reich, Elliott Abrams, all these creeps were there, John Bolton, they were there in Latin America. Otto Reich was like a monster. Go back to the 1980s and look at Iran-Contra stories, what we did in Nicaragua with the Contras and you see it’s the same old types that haunt the State Department. I think it’s a shame. Obama had a handshake (with Chavez), and we all had high hopes, but nothing has changed.

What do you think of “leadership” and “power” as concepts? Are you ambivalent?

I think Kennedy was really moving things in a different way when he was killed. I think Carter had the ability to and Clinton had the ability to. But the forces of resisting change in this country are enormous. On the other hand I think the majority in this country want change, maybe in a progressive way, but I think I don’t really believe we are a democracy. I believe we are a plutocracy or an oligarchy or whatever you want to call it. Corporations and money run this country. I believe people voted for Obama but it doesn’t make that big a difference because he can’t do much against entrenched money. I think the best democracy in my example — it’s a homogenous country — would be Switzerland, because they’ve had the longest running (expletive) democracy since the 19th century for Christ’s sake. They’re the only known existent democracy. They don’t have anybody who’s a big ego, they don’t have big leaders, and they keep the central government balanced. I guess your question opens into “what is a good democracy?” It might very well be a faceless democracy with good leaders and good people who work at it. And there are many professionals in our government who are very good. The political game of ego building and ego bashing is harmful to democracy. As it was to Athens. Pericles was also assassinated, character-wise.

And so we end up with a politics of personality.

Exactly, that’s what’s dangerous. The cult of personality. Which is what they accuse Chavez of, and there is some justification in that, but on the other hand (the media) keep saying “Chavez, Chavez, Chavez” and they say “Castro, Castro.” But when you go to these countries, what you sense is that there’s a strong base for these people. In other words, Castro would not have existed without the revolution. The people were behind him. and still seem to be, as well as Chavez. So they have created a strong degree of change in their countries. None of our press ever seems to admit that. They write about ego . . . Look at the movement for Christ sake, I guess that’s too difficult or too boring or too faceless.

When you met the various leaders, what were their favorite films of yours? Did they mention any?

Certainly, yeah. Castro is a big fan of my military movies because he’s got a background as a guerilla, and he loved “Platoon,” and he loves “Salvador,” “JFK.” With Chavez, he’d seen everything. Well, not everything, but a lot. He’s a great guy, I liked him. He’s warm, he’s sensual, he’s got that human touch, he talks to you. Nothing’s off the board there, you can talk about anything. “Hey Hugo, they call you a dictator! Are you an (expletive)?” You can say anything you want to him. I’ve been with other types of politicians who (expletive) tighten up, their (expletive)s would pucker. Man, they would go crazy. You couldn’t talk to Bush about anything.

Hugo, Rethought — Oliver Stone examines the South American revolution


*** 1/2
Starring: Hugo Chavez, Raúl Castro, Rafael Correa, Cristina Kirchner and Evo Morales
Length: 102 minutes

First Fidel, now Hugo. Director Oliver Stone doesn’t mind incurring the wrath of the mainstream media with his documentaries, which he has recently been releasing in between his studio features. “Finding Fidel” and “Comandante” attempted to rescue Castro from decades of demonization, with Stone sitting down and chatting with Cuba’s leader. In the new “South of the Border,” Stone travels down to Venezuela to do the same thing with Hugo Chavez.

The brisk and informative “South of the Border” begins with the talking bobble heads of Fox News’ morning show, snarking about how Chavez must be insane because he eats a bowl of cocoa every day. The most intelligent of the three hosts steps in to bravely ask if they mean coca. Nobody is really sure, and who cares right? (Knowledge is so elitist.) It’s a scene that promises to melt your brain right there and then, and then make one despair for modern media in general. But after a quick history lesson on the West’s finagling in South America, Stone brings in Hugo Chavez and sits down with the man we’ve been led to believe is a bloodthirsty monster.

It’s not the most amazing of interviews, and Stone often just seems like a guest getting a tour of a rental property, nodding politely, expressing interest. He does get directorial in one moment, taking Chavez back to his hardscrabble childhood home and having the leader ride around the backyard on a tiny bike. (The bike breaks under Chavez’ weight).

What’s more important, and what makes “South of the Border” imperative viewing, is Stone’s overview of Chavez’ rise to power, his nationalizing of the oil industry, and his weaning off of the American teat. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are the villains here, and as the second half of the doc shows, have an interest in keeping South America in debt.

If you’ve ever paid off a huge credit card bill you’ll know that panicked calls from the banks soon follow. (I had mine worrying if I was going to “leave them” for another company.)On a worldwide scale, that is what happened with Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, who freed his country from IMF debt.

“South of the Border” shows how Chavez’ revolution led to similar ones in Bolivia (which now has its first ever native-born leader), Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. These leaders are not names in our nightly news, and they are not friends with American business interests. Therefore they either don’t register or they turn into enemies. “South of the Border,” whatever you may think of Chavez, at least provides enough information about an entire continent that would make Fox’s Morning Show’s talking heads’ heads explode.

When: 4:30 Saturday (Q&A with filmmaker follows) and 4:30 Sunday
Where: Saturday — Lobero Theatre; Sunday — Metro 4

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