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South of the Border

An Imperfect Relationship

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

The United States' relationship with Latin America has been a complicated one for over a century: blatantly interventionist at the start, friendlier during World War II, covertly meddlesome during the Cold War.

Contemporary attitudes are largely negative; we think it's a continent full of anti-American leaders, lawless drug traffickers, and pitiable economies. The extent to which these impressions are the result of our mainstream media's misperceptions — whether through journalistic laziness or for propagandistic purposes — is the central issue that Oliver Stone tackles in his unapologetically personal documentary, South of the Border.

By interviewing seven current presidents — Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Raúl Castro (Cuba), and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina) as well as her husband, and former president, Néstor Kirchner — and even hobnobbing with some of them, Stone reveals an interesting spectrum of personalities and political philosophies that govern hundreds of millions of people in the southern hemisphere. These leaders speak with one voice, to the point that they sound like a mutual admiration society. Yet their different approaches do not guarantee total agreement.

Given this large, intriguing cast of characters, South of the Border necessarily glosses over important details and paints its arguments with a broad brush. By limiting his message to barely 80 minutes, however, and by focusing the film's first half-hour solely on the infamous Chávez — his military career, his political maturation, his coups d'état — Stone shortchanges the lesser-known leaders he meets. They may be less colorful (bombastic) than Chávez, but they're no less interesting to listen to.

It's clear why Stone lavishes so much attention on the Venezuelan president. Chávez fancies himself a modern-day Simón Bolívar, the 19th century liberator of Latin America from Spanish rule. Not that he wants to be president of four countries, as Bolívar was, but he seeks to influence his neighbors politically by way of his "Bolívarian revolution," a social movement that aims to integrate the Latin American economies and thwart the market-driven influences of "neoliberalism," such as the privatization of state-owned utilities.

This may sound like boring political science, but South of the Border is actually quite entertaining. Given its brevity, it can only touch on many of these economic terms and historical references without fully explaining them. You get the idea, but if you're intellectually curious you must look elsewhere to learn more.

We hear some glowing statistics: Venezuela no longer has to import corn, poverty has fallen dramatically, and Chávez won 13 consecutive elections so he must be genuinely popular. On a more personal level, the film shows us that Chávez drives his own car, instead of employing a driver, and stays up late poring over government reports instead of doing a little light reading. One photo-op shows him receiving a hero's welcome when he visits the town where he grew up under impoverished conditions.

The feel-good moment among the townsfolk is marred by the preponderance of people wearing red T-shirts bearing the logo of Chávez's United Socialist Party. You wonder whether everyone wears the party swag because they're scared not to.

Documentaries don't need to pretend to provide a balanced approach to their subjects. They should want to engage, incite, and educate their audiences. Yet a film like South of the Border begs for a little more even-handedness, if not an in-depth approach. Otherwise, Stone merely preaches to the choir and alienates those whose minds really need to be challenged. Mixing in some laughably reactionary sound bites about Chávez from Fox News commentators makes for good political theater but it's lazy documentary filmmaking and it doesn't fool anyone.

This is a shame because the issue is relevant and important. The questionable influence over the years of the United States, and by extension the economic experiments of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, on the continent to the south is well documented.

Moreover, the approaches that leaders are taking to improve things their way — through benign, non-predatory capitalism — sound interesting and should be tried. And yet Amnesty International, not exactly a right-wing institution, has repeatedly urged the Venezuelan authorities to stop targeting government critics, including journalists.

Stone's film should address the gray areas of the discussion, not pretend it doesn't exist. South of the Border cheats you out of an honest investigation of what's really going on south of the border and why we should care.