South of the Border

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Director: Oliver Stone; Release date: 30 July 2010

Oliver Stone's latest documentary is a film of two halves. He began the project attempting to show a "different side" to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, as he did with a previous documentary on Fidel Castro.

The first half of Stone's film examines Chavez's rise and his close relationship with ordinary Venezuelans. We see how Chavez became popular after leading fellow left wing officers in a failed coup to protest at the 1989 Caracazo massacre. In this the army killed hundreds of poor people rioting against IMF cuts. Later, we see Chavez democratically elected and mass mobilisations defeating a US-sponsored attempt to overthrow him.

Stone was invited to do interviews with other left wing Latin American presidents. These make up the latter part of the film. The result is an odd marriage - accentuated by the inclusion of a wide range of leaders, from the social liberal Lula in Brazil to Raul Castro in Cuba.

Yet South of the Border, which was co-written with Tariq Ali, is a powerful and entertaining film. It has a style reminiscent of Michael Moore: mixing interviews and presidential tours with dramatic footage of different struggles. He contrasts this footage often hilariously with distortions in the international media. In one scene he calmly chews coca leaves with Bolivia's Evo Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, showing that it is not the dangerous narcotic it is claimed to be.

This film has the potential to bring to a new audience the devastating effects of US and IMF policy across Latin America. The role of the IMF in wrecking people's lives is of particular interest, as a similar process has begun in Greece. We are reminded that Argentina successfully defaulted on its debts!

Struggles across the continent have brought to power new leaders who, as Argentina's Cristina Fernandez says, "for the first time look like the people they govern": Lula was a metal worker; Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president.

The leaders express a shared desire for a "multipolar" world based on equality instead of US hegemony. Ecuador's Rafael Correa says he told Washington to remove its military base from his country unless there could be an Ecuadorian one in Miami!

It is of course refreshing to hear presidents sharing these ideas. However, things are not as simple as they seem.

Firstly, the experiences of the different governments have varied enormously. Bolivia and Venezuela have introduced important reforms benefiting the poor and have encouraged the struggle. Morales recently hosted an international activists' summit on climate change. On the other hand, Brazil was one of the key allies of the US that prevented an agreement at the Copenhagen climate conference, and until recently Brazil led an unpopular UN occupation of Haiti. So when Lula calls for greater regional integration we should see this not as anti-imperialism but as an attempt to bolster the competitiveness and regional dominance of Brazilian capital.

Secondly, even in the "left wing" states there are enormous contradictions. This is particularly so in Cuba - an authoritarian state capitalist regime. It is also the case where radical governments are wrestling with unelected powers.

There are hints of the frustration this causes in the interview with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo - a former radical priest - who laments the ability of the private media to slow down change. There are also several hints of the differences between leaders.

The film also obscures the crucial role of the social movements in shifting politics leftwards in the region. It claims that Venezuela's workers supported the 2002-3 bosses' lockout against Chavez, when workers mobilised to defeat it, and there is no mention of Chavez's more moderate politics before such battles.

Throughout, Stone's top-down approach to politics shapes his account. Too often questionable statements go unchallenged (for example, when Chavez claims that Venezuela is moving away from dependency on oil).

These limits are unsurprising, as Stone explicitly rejects socialism and argues for the possibility of a "benign capitalism" - a position reflecting the practice of many of his subjects. But these caveats do not stop the film from being recommendable viewing - particularly for those who doubt whether change is possible today.