Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oliver Stone's Latin America in 'South of the Border', NYT by Larry Rother

The New York Times

Oliver Stone called news coverage of South America unbalanced and said his film "South of the Border" was "definitely a counter to that."

By LARRY ROHTER
June 26, 2010

In feature films about John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush, Oliver Stone gave free rein to his imagination and was often criticized for doing so. Now, in "South of the Border," which opened on Friday, he has turned to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's controversial populist president, and his reformist allies in South America.

"People who are often demonized, like Nixon and Bush and Chávez and Castro, fascinate me," Mr. Stone said in an interview this week during a tour to promote the film, which portrays Mr. Chávez as a benevolent, generous, tolerant and courageous leader who has been unjustly maligned.

"It's a recurring thing," he added, that may suggest "a psychological attachment to the underdog" on his part.

Unlike his movies about American presidents, 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.

Mr. Stone's problems in the film begin early on, with his account of Mr. Chávez's rise. As "South of the Border" portrays it, Mr. Chávez's main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was "a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe" named Irene Sáez, and thus "the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast" election.

But Mr. Chávez's main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote.

When this and several other discrepancies were pointed out to Mr. Stone in the interview, his attitudes varied. "I'm sorry about that, and I apologize," he said about the 1998 election. But he also complained of "nitpicking" and "splitting hairs" and said that it was not his intention to make either a program for C-Span or engage in what he called "a cruel and brutal" Mike Wallace-style interrogation of Mr. Chávez that the BBC broadcast this month.

"We are dealing with a big picture, and we don't stop to go into a lot of the criticism and details of each country," he said. "It's a 101 introduction to a situation in South America that most Americans and Europeans don't know about," he added, because of "years and years of blighted journalism."

"I think there has been so much unbalance that we are definitely a counter to that," he also said. Tariq Ali, the British-Pakistani historian and commentator who helped write the screenplay, added: "It's hardly a secret that we support the other side. It's an opinionated documentary."

Initial reviews of "South of the Border" have been tepid. Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it a "provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism," while Entertainment Weekly described it as "rose-colored agitprop."

Some of the misinformation that Mr. Stone, who consistently mispronounces Mr. Chávez's name as Sha-VEZ instead of CHA-vez, inserts into "South of the Border" is relatively benign.

A flight from Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon, not the Andes, and the United States does not "import more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation," a distinction that has belonged to Saudi Arabia during the period 2004-10.

But other questionable assertions relate to fundamental issues, including Mr. Stone's contention that human rights, a concern in Latin America since the Jimmy Carter era, is "a new buzz phrase," used mainly to clobber Mr. Chávez.

Mr. Stone argues in the film that Colombia, which "has a far worse human rights record than Venezuela," gets "a pass in the media that Chávez doesn't" because of his hostility to the United States.

As Mr. Stone begins to speak, the logo of Human Rights Watch, which closely monitors the situation in both Colombia and Venezuela and has issued tough reports on both, appears on the screen. That would seem to imply that the organization is part of the "political double standard" of which Mr. Stone complains.

"It's true that many of Chávez's fiercest critics in Washington have turned a blind eye to Colombia's appalling human rights record," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the group's Americas division. "But that's no reason to ignore the serious damage that Chávez has done to human rights and the rule of law in Venezuela," which includes summarily expelling Mr. Vivanco and an associate, in violation of Venezuelan law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.

A similarly tendentious attitude pervades Mr. Stone's treatment of the April 2002 coup that briefly toppled Mr. Chávez.

One of the key events in that crisis, perhaps its instigation, was the "Llaguno Bridge Massacre," in which 19 people were shot to death in circumstances that remain murky, with Chávez supporters blaming the opposition, and vice versa.

Mr. Stone's film includes some new footage from the confrontation at the bridge, but its basic argument hews closely to that of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a film the Chávez camp has endorsed. That documentary, however, has been subject to rebuttal by another, called "X-Ray of a Lie," and by Brian A. Nelson's book "The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela" (Nation Books), neither of which Mr. Stone mentions.

Instead Mr. Stone relies heavily on the account of Gregory Wilpert, who witnessed some of the exchange of gunfire and is described as an American academic. But Mr. Wilpert is also the husband of Mr. Chávez's consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a longtime editor and president of the board of a Web site, Venezuelanalysis.com, set up with donations from the Venezuelan government, affiliations that Mr. Stone does not disclose.

Like Mr. Stone's take on the Kennedy assassination, this section of "South of the Border" hinges on the identity of a sniper or snipers who may or may not have been part of a larger conspiracy. As Mr. Stone puts it in the film, "Shots were fired from the rooftops of buildings, and members from both sides were hit in the head."

In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Wilpert acknowledged that the first shots seem to have been fired from a building known as La Nacional, which housed the administrative offices of Freddy Bernal, the pro-Chávez mayor of central Caracas. In a congressional investigation following the coup, Mr. Bernal, who led an elite police squadron before taking office, was questioned about a military officer's testimony that the Defense Ministry had ordered Mr. Bernal to fire on opposition demonstrators. Mr. Bernal described that charge as "totally false."

"I did not know about that, I didn't even know it was a Chávista building," Mr. Stone said initially, before retreating to his original position. "Show me some Zapruder footage, and it might be different," he said.

The second half of "South of the Border" is a road movie in which Mr. Stone, sometimes accompanied by Mr. Chávez, meets with leaders of Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. But here, too, he bends facts and omits information that might undermine his thesis of a continent-wide "Bolivarian revolution," with Mr. Chávez in the forefront.

Visiting Argentina, for example, he accurately describes the economic collapse of 2001. But then he jumps to Néstor Kirchner's election to the presidency in May 2003 and lets Mr. Kirchner and his successor - and wife - Cristina Fernández de Kirchner claim that "we began a different policy than before."

In reality, Mr. Kirchner's presidential predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, and Mr. Duhalde's finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, were the architects of that policy shift and the subsequent economic recovery, which began while Mr. Kirchner was still the obscure governor of a small province in Patagonia. Mr. Kirchner was originally a protégé of Mr. Duhalde's, but the two men are now political enemies, which explains the Kirchners' desire to write him out of their version of history.

Trying to explain the rise of Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia who is a Chávez acolyte, Mr. Ali refers to a controversial and botched water privatization in the city of Cochabamba. "The government decided to sell the water supply of Cochabamba to Bechtel, a U.S. corporation," he says, "and this corporation, one of the things it got the government to do was to pass a law saying that from now on it was illegal for poor people to go out onto the roofs and collect rainwater in receptacles."

In reality, the government did not sell the water supply: it granted a consortium that included Bechtel a 40-year management concession in return for injections of capital to expand and improve water service and construction of a dam for electricity and irrigation.

Nor is the issue of water collection by the poor exactly as Mr. Ali presents it. "The rainwater permit issue always comes up," Jim Shultz, a water privatization critic and co-editor of "Dignity and Defiance: Stories of Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization" (University of California Press), said in an e-mail message. "What I can say is that the privatization of the public water system was accompanied by a government plan to require permits in order to dig wells and such, and that it could have potentially granted management concessions to Bechtel or others." But "it never got that far," he added, and "it remains unclear to me to this day what type of water collection systems would have been included."

He concluded: "Many believed that would have included some rain collection systems. That could also easily be hype."Asked about the discrepancy, Mr. Ali replied that "we can talk about all this endlessly," but "the aim of our film is very clear and basic." In "South of the Border," he added: "We were not writing a book, or having an academic debate. It was to have a sympathetic view of these governments."

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