Oliver Stone has long has been one of America’s best-known and controversial directors, making films lionizing Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. But the director of “World Trade Center,” “JFK” and “Platoon” has taken up a new cause - Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
With “South of the Border,” a documentary to be released Friday, Mr. Stone has set out to rehabilitate the image of Mr. Chavez from dictator to democratic leader.
Mr. Stone first met Mr. Chavez in 2007, during his aborted mission to rescue hostages being held by the pro-Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Intrigued by the disparity between Mr. Chavez’s reputation and the man he met, Mr. Stone returned in 2009 to interview him and leaders in several of his South American neighbors and allied countries.
“This was a new deal,” Mr. Stone said in remarks to the National Press Club on Wednesday, the same day that “South of the Border” had its Washington-area premiere at the AFI SilverDocs festival. “A new mood was in the air.”
Of all the elected leaders in the world, Mr. Stone said, Mr. Chavez is the most vilified, with accusations of crime and corruption against him. Yet he noticed the president has been repeatedly re-elected and had gained considerable support among the poor in his country.
“What I saw was completely different than what I was seeing on the TV and in the press,” Mr. Stone said.
“South of the Border” is Mr. Stone’s attempt to tell the other side of what he called the social revolution in South America, a story of still-imperfect democracies determined to reduce poverty.
The film is not Mr. Stone’s first effort to make a film about an anti-American leader. In 2003, he made “Comandante,” largely consisting of Mr. Stone interviewing Mr. Castro. The next year’s “Looking for Fidel” had more footage with the Cuban dictator, but included interviews with Cuban dissidents.
“South of the Border” is likely to be criticized, especially by conservatives, as the whitewash of a dictator - indeed, it already has been hit. In a favorable “B+” review, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Glieberman said the film was “rose-colored agitprop” guilty of “soft-pedaling the Venezuelan president’s crackdown tendencies.”
At the conservative-leaning film website Big Hollywood, Ann McElhinney recounted her own, very different experiences of a recent trip to Venezuela and said that “if Mr. Stone had taken his camera on to the streets of Caracas he would very quickly have found lots of people who think Chavez is a menace who seizes property on a whim and gives it to his cronies.”
Mr. Stone has long rejected these kinds of criticisms and said Wednesday that the media has long considered Mr. Chavez an anti-American dictator, but his project promotes a vastly different opinion of these governments in South America. “South of the Border” paints a picture of South American leaders working together to reform their entire continent and earn international respect.
“I think the main thing is that there is democracy,” Mr. Stone said.
After the Cold War, Mr. Stone said, these countries “imploded,” leaving the door wide open for their elected leaders to pledge reform through socialist and government-subsidized entitlements that earn their governments a bad reputation in America.
“Theyre a voice sometimes of sanity in this world we need an opposition. All of us do,” he said.
Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Cuba have all taken control of their natural resources, to distribute as they see fit, and declared their independence from U.S. economic and military dominance, Mr. Stone said. “Independence, what we wanted so many years ago,” he said.
Mr. Stone hopes his “modest” film will serve as a voice of needed opposition. Mr. Stone said the film was received in Bolivia with the cheers of its thousands of audience members.
However, Variety magazine last week reported that the film had done poorly in Venezuela, with reports of empty theaters despite a public relations blitz.