Oliver Stone Under Assault Again
Oliver Stone is under attack again, which isn’t a surprise, given that no other filmmaker has been so willing to challenge the “conventional wisdom” in an effort to uncover the facts about important events.
After seeing what the media did to Stone for his excellent and provocative film “JFK,” I concluded that the press had become almost a reverse template. If the media trashes a Stone film, I know something important must be onscreen.
And the template holds true with Stone’s latest film, a documentary called “South of the Border.”
In the film, Stone talks to several leaders of the new left in Latin America, many of whom came to power in democratic elections by protesting America’s overt and covert meddling in their countries.
Stone meets, separately and in groups, with Hugo Chávez (President of Venezuela), Evo Morales (President of Bolivia), Lula da Silva (President of Brazil), Rafael Correa (President of Ecuador), Cristina Kirchner (President of Argentina) as well as her husband Nìstor Kirchner (former President of Argentina), and Raúl Castro (currently running Cuba for his ailing brother Fidel).
Stone asks us to look behind the American media’s one-sided portrayals of these leaders and the countries they represent so we can make up our own minds about who they are and what they are trying to do.
Are these vicious dictators? Are these ignorant leaders who are making a mess of their countries? It’s hard to reconcile such caricatures with the real-life people Stone introduces. We see, instead, that these leaders are working something of a quiet revolution against imperialist interests.
One of the leaders rather humorously talks of closing an American base in his country because the Americans failed to reciprocate by giving him a base in Florida. In recent decades, such chutzpah would have been unthinkable, as the countries in Central and South America were dependent on American largesse to meet financial commitments on their balance sheets.
But these leaders have worked hard to free their countries from subservience, giving them freedom to speak their minds.
Stone’s heresy is that he allows the possibility that these left-leaning leaders may be doing a good job, given what they have to work with, and that the old American way of running the leaders of nations south of our border as subsidiaries of the U.S. government hasn’t worked out so well.
The greatest offense, perhaps, is Stone’s warm and fuzzy portrayal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The American press has gone to extraordinary lengths to demonize Chávez, to portray him as a dictatorial monster, or worse, a crazy man.
Of course, if Chávez had given American-based businesses control over his country’s oil supply instead of nationalizing it to benefit his countrymen, no doubt the press for Chávez would have been glowing. Historically, the American government and media have both been kind to dictators who allowed the United States to get cheap deals on resources in their country at the expense of the natives there.
The film opens with a Fox News host calling Latin American dictators “drug users” because they chewed “cocoa” leaves. The host soon learns, however, that it’s not “cocoa” leaves but “coca” leaves. And chewing a leaf is not even close to the same as using cocaine, a highly concentrated, processed material made from those leaves.
That opening scene sets the tone: the media isn’t simply wrong; sometimes, it’s downright ridiculous, when it comes to the politics and the realities of Latin America.
The film documents Chávez’s rise to power, from military hero to President to ousted leader in a coup that may very well have been sponsored by the American government and around again to restored leader.
Stone’s film shows how a key fight during the coup period was dramatically misrepresented in the press, where selective footage was used to paint a fictitious picture. Stone shows us the footage the networks didn’t, which put the lie to their case.
While a good portion of the film is focused on Chávez, interviews of the other leaders are also interesting, and often humorous. This is an entertaining as well as informative production. Part history lesson and part road trip, the film is at turns fascinating, frustrating, and funny.
The film also discusses briefly the legacy of Simon Bolivar, a figure I was certainly not taught about in history classes growing up, despite his importance to so many in the Western hemisphere. Born in Venezuela, Bolivar grew up to be South America’s greatest liberator, freeing the lands that became Peru, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, and Panama from Spanish rule.
(Ironically, on July 16, 2010, some 180 years after his death, Bolivar’s body was exhumed in an attempt to determine whether he died of tuberculosis -- as originally reported -- or whether he had been poisoned accidentally or even murdered.)
At the screening I attended, a number of people had gathered outside the theater to both support and protest the film. Allegations were made there and at other screenings that Chávez himself funded the production, which sounded ridiculous to me. I was curious to find the source of such an allegation.
An unsigned op-ed ran in the July 6, 2010, online issue of Investors Business Daily, which purported that while Chávez was attending the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, he had told the press that he had personally funded the film.
I scoured through accounts of the festival, knowing if Chávez had said any such thing it would have been all over the media. But there were no such accounts. I called Stone’s production company to find out if that was true. A spokesman for the film assured me that Chávez had not funded the film, that the production had been funded by Muse Productions and by the advance sales of foreign film rights.
Investors Business Daily had been told the same thing, but challenged this, saying the Muse Productions Web site didn’t list Stone’s film in their list of projects. A quick check of the Internet Movie Database, however, shows clearly that “South of the Border” was indeed a Muse project. What’s sad is how easily lies like this are spread and repeated by a gullible public.
Such attacks are, sadly, familiar territory for Stone. Stone’s phenomenal success with his film “JFK” brought him an unprecedented level of vitriol from the establishment press.
And rather than consider the possibility that the lone nut version was wrong and investigate the data indicating conspiracy, which screenwriter Zachary Sklar and Stone’s production team did a remarkably accurate job exposing, the establishment instead insisted over and over that Stone was wrong -- and worse, un-American -- for challenging one of the country’s most cherished myths.
The Oswald-did-it-alone scenario is also one of the establishment media’s most necessary myths, because if Oswald wasn’t the lone assassin of President Kennedy, then the press corps failed us when we needed them most, and that doesn’t bode well for people’s faith in the press, the government, or the establishment.
And a government that loses the trust of its people isn’t destined to last long. So the press made the obvious choice and pilloried Stone’s excellent film. They are doing the same thing again with “South of the Border.”
The establishment press appears to have the agenda of sinking this film because it, too, challenges a necessary myth. If Hugo Chávez is simply a madman and a dictator, then he deserves to be brought down. But if he is an intelligent, left-leaning leader who is doing some good things for his country, that’s a model that could potentially migrate to this country, threatening the establishment in unprecedented ways.
Therefore, Stone’s portrayal, which serves as a counterbalance to the one-sided portrayals we’ve been shown, becomes a threat the establishment cannot leave unchallenged.
The strongest attack on the film came from Larry Rohter in the pages of the New York Times. Rohter attempted to present a list of supposed errors in Stone’s film. Stone and his team rebutted each of Rohter’s specific claims.
Rohter begins with an inconsequential argument: that Stone’s film misrepresents the presidential race in Venezuela in 1998, when Chávez ran against Irene Sáez, a former Miss Universe, in a contest portrayed in the film as “Beauty and the Beast.” Rohter insists that Henrique Salas Romer was Chávez’s main opponent and noted that Sáez took in only a tiny percent of the vote.
Though the question of whether Romer or Sáez was Chávez’s chief rival has little bearing on the larger point of the film, Stone and his partners Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali responded to this quibble nonetheless, noting that when the election season began, in 1997, Sáez was the main opponent, and the race was touted as “Beauty and the Beast” by the press at the time.
But as the election wore on, Sáez started losing support, and late in the process, the two largest political parties in the country threw their support behind Romer instead, giving Romer a large margin over Sáez (but not over Chávez who won handily).
Rohter’s second allegation of error nitpicks about a flight from Caracas, Venezuela, to La Paz, Bolivia, which the film said flew over the Andes. Rohter responded by saying most of the flight is over the Amazon, not the Andes. However, Stone et al pointed out that, according to Google Maps, you do, in fact, fly over the Andes en route.
Getting warmed up in this game of trivial pursuits, Rohter also challenged the film’s statement that the U.S. imported more oil from Venezuela than from any other OPEC nation by noting that, from 2004-2010, that distinction belonged to Saudi Arabia.
Stone’s response, however, notes that the quote came from an oil industry analyst speaking in 2002, and in the relevant period, 1997-2001, the U.S. did get more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation.
Rohter also takes issue with Stone’s handling of the 2002 coup that, for a couple of days, removed Chávez from power. Stone’s film alleges, as have numerous others in the media and academia, that the U.S. government was covertly supporting the coup.
But Rohter tries to make Stone seem ridiculous in his recounting of a violent confrontation between Chávez backers and Chávez opponents.
“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,” Rohter wrote.
However, Stone’s film at no point “hinges on the identity of a sniper or snipers.” What the film does present is the fact that news footage was deliberately misrepresented to make it look like some of Chávez’s supporters killed 19 innocent people on a bridge that day. Stone’s account also makes the point that it’s not clear who opened fire from a building overlooking the competing protests.
What is clear – and far more important – is that the Bush administration lent support to the coup plotters. (You can read about the extensive participation of Otto Reich, Elliott Abrams and other retreads from the Reagan administration in the 2002 Venezuelan coup in this Guardian article.)
I could go on, but why? It’s clear that, on both key points and trivial matters, it is Rohter, not Stone, who doesn’t have his facts straight. (You can read Rohter’s original piece here and Stone’s rebuttal here.)
Go see the film for yourself. Make up your own mind. Don’t believe the negative press. Remember who owns the press.
The U.S. media has given you only one side of the political transformation underway in Latin America. So see the other side for yourself in “South of the Border.”
It’s a fun and fresh look at a subject most of us know far too little about. Believe it or not, we could learn a few tricks from our southern neighbors.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.
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