Changing Paradigms in Latin America?: Oliver Stone’s South of the Border

Jun 30, 2010

Laura Mansfield

Office of the Simon Chair

The U.S. debut of Oliver Stone’s most recent film, South of the Border, was recently held at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival. The film, showcasing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution, expanded the story of the controversial leader to explore the implications of a left-leaning political movement in Latin American countries. Although the documentary highlighted the Venezuelan example,  many other leaders in the region were interviewed, including Raúl Castro of Cuba. Stone portrayed these leaders as protagonistic heroes of Latin American independence in the face of an antagonistic U.S. hegemony, a perspective he believes is misrepresented in mainstream U.S. media. Oliver Stone created South of the Border as a one-sided account to balance this misrepresentation.

The three-time Academy Award winner is famous for his unique, yet arguably inaccurate, portrayal of some of history’s most controversial events including the Vietnam War, the formation of Wall Street, the Cuban Revolution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Maintaining his reputation as a controversial filmmaker, the New York Times describes South of the Border as “seasoned with unsettling tales of overbearing imperialist ways.” After Larry Rhoter accused the documentary of disseminating “misinformation,” Stone and the screenwriters refuted his evidence, yet the debate continues. Although the movie is controversial and depicts only one perspective of a polarized issue, it is generally regarded as an entertaining account of factual evidence and opinion. Nonetheless, reviews have been as polarized as the issue.

After the U.S. premiere, Neal Conan, the host of NPR Talk of the Nation, moderated a discussion with the filmmaker, screenwriters Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrott, and Cynthia Arnson, the Director of the Latin America Program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The main criticism of the film, presented by Arnson, is that Stone inaccurately represents the political situation in Latin America, the same criticism Stone has of mainstream media. These unbalanced views have created a question of legitimacy and may undermine the original intent to provide alternative perspectives to mainstream media like Fox News. Although Stone and the screenwriters asserted in the discussion that there is dissent away from these leftist leaders in the region that do not always support U.S. interests, they believe that the domestic  public support for the leaders and integration efforts between countries is overlooked by media coverage despite their importance. Nonetheless, Arnson said that the film is a disservice to the public by only presenting one side of the issue. Stone and the screenwriters agree that the film is one-sided, but believe that it necessarily counteracts the more prominent negative perspective.

Many members in the audience, while acknowledging the biased nature of the film, appreciated that the documentary shed light on a subject which they admittedly knew little about. Stone has taken advantage of an opportunity to influence public opinion through media, self admittedly in a one-sided manner. Although it may be a disservice to the public to discuss this controversial issue without balance, it raises awareness and attention to an important perspective that many hold and is often overlooked by mainstream media. Overall, Stone sends the message to viewers that there are a growing number of presidents who are committed to balancing U.S. influence and the determination of these countries is growing as they become united in this effort. While Oliver Stone has achieved his objective to generate interest and provoke dialogue, he leaves it to the audience to assess the validity of his argument.  At the very least, Stone has found a way to generate interest in a region that is habitually ignored by U.S. policymakers.

Photograph of Oliver Stone provided by Towpiolot within Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons License.