Filmmaker Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from controversy, especially when it comes to world leaders, having made movies about Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and most recently, George W. Bush. He’s also maintained an interest in the relationship between the United States with Central and South America going back to the ’80s when he wrote Scarface then directed Salvador, which culminated him making two documentaries about Cuba’s former President, Fidel Castro.
These two ideas come together in Stone’s latest documentary South of the Border, which looks at how the relationship between the U.S. and South America has changed with the election of liberal-minded leaders. Stone traveled through the continent with cinematographer (and legendary concert documentarian) Albert Maysles to do an extensive interview with Venezuela’s controversial President Hugo Chávez, which was followed by talks with Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Lul da Silva from Brazil, Argentina’s Cristina Kirschner, Rafael Correa from Ecuador, before returning back to Cuba to talk to Raul Casto.
ComingSoon.net had a quick sit down with Stone and the film’s advisor and screenwriter Tariq Ali, a renowned historian and novelist who has been analyzing and commenting on global issues going back to the Vietnam War. The two clearly have a close relationship, as they shared a few inside jokes about South American leaders, which is not something you experience every day while talking about movies.
When we asked Stone what started things rolling on his path to make a movie about Chávez and how it ended up covering more of South America, he responded, “I was working with Fernarndo Sulichin on the other documentaries, he’s Argentine and he helped me out to come down, because he was financing ‘Secret History of the United States.’ That’s my pet project. That’s ten hours coming next year for Showtime. I went down in 2007 for the hostage crisis, that was aborted by Uribe (President of Columbia) and Bush basically, then I went down in 2009 and interviewed Chávez. He said, ‘Don’t take my word on it. Go out and see the other neighboring countries.’ That’s when it branched out, and it became like a road trip. As he’s says, it’s really a mild corrective to the picture of South America. At the end of the movie, I quote Fidel as saying in 2002, that there’s going to be a change, the pendulum of history would swing. I thought those were words, that was abstract thought. I didn’t realize it would swing so quick. I’m glad for the old man that his grandsons came up and they’re a different breed than he thought, and Chávez got his attention. Look, it’s a big change. Sick countries I do think they’re for reformed movements, they’re democratically-elected and they’re for putting the people first above the state and getting the corporations down or out. I think that’s what it’s about, and that hasn’t been noted in this country. Unfortunately, people don’t see it or don’t want to see it and I think the United States government is fighting to destroy it.”
Ali told us about how he got involved with the project. “I came on later after Oliver finished interviewing the presidents and interviewing me for the ‘Secret History’ and we started talking about this and he asked me to think of ways in which we can improve this film, so we did.”
To sit down with such powerful world leaders to interview them may be fairly daunting for any political journalist, so we wondered what Oliver did to prepare himself to talk to them on film and how he got them comfortable doing so. “I think I went into it more as me, I didn’t go as Mike Wallace,” he told us. “I said, ‘Look, this is exciting what’s going on.’ Casual is the best approach for me, because I’m not pretending to be a scholar about that country, so I take it as it comes, try and be loose and easy. Not trying to be overly-ambitious, happy to be there, and privileged to earn their access. I think they’ve seen the Castro movie, and they know I’m not going to f*ck them in the editing. They know I went through hell in this country on the behalf of that movie.”
“They were impressed with that, because they know what they get from the West,” Ali added. “They always have journalists behaving as if they were…”
“Prosecuting attorneys,” Stone finished his thought. “I think moviemaking is viewed as subversive… you’re viewed as an outlaw, as a maverick, so I think as a moviemaker, you have a little bit more allowance in their minds rather than if you’re a political journalist.”
Ali had some more to say about why Stone was able to get such great results from his interviews. “This is the first time most of these Presidents, most of them, not all of them, had a hearing in a documentary made by a Western director, unmediated. He listens to them, films them and edits them so their views are not distorted, and you put it out. It’s fairly straightforward stuff, really. People can agree or disagree with it but this is what these guys think. We happen to think they’re doing good, they’re not on the payroll of the corporations.”
“The thing I like about those guys are they’re all open. I don’t find them guarded like most politicians,” Stone said when we suggested that being politicians, these leaders may have been putting on a show for his cameras. “When you tell the truth, generally speaking, you don’t get into that thing of looking over your shoulder at your own shadow.”
Ali also explained why they didn’t go to Chile or Columbia during their South American road trip. “We didn’t go to see Uribe, because there’s nothing to be said. That guy is a total U.S. stooge, and Bachilet we didn’t see because though she’s a very decent woman and we all respect her, but she can change absolutely nothing. The system set up by Chile set up by Pinochet was unaltered during her rule, that was her big weakness. Had she altered it and reformed it, this crazy millionaire who has been elected President of Chile might not have gotten it. It was pointless seeing her for that reason.”
When Stone calls Ali out on his statement about the Chilean President being “crazy,” Ali corrected himself, “I mean ‘kooky,’ let’s say ‘eccentric.’ I don’t mean ‘crazy’ that he’s mental, eccentric. They think they’ve got money, they can own the country. Why shouldn’t they basically? Logically.”
“I say own it quietly,” Stone added with a smile. “Like they usually do.”
When asked about if South America has changed since his visit in early 2009, Stone said, “I think the economic recession hurt them, too. There’s a shrinkage of the economy, because the economy grew enormously in those six years, it grew 90% in Venezuela. It’s one of the biggest growth rates of all, but it shrunk in the last two quarters. Venezuela’s been hurt, no question, but employment’s still decent, figures are good, 8%. Inflation rate is high, but it was always high, but it’s higher than it used to be.”
And as far as whether Stone has had a chance to show his latest movie to President Obama, he quipped, “I’d like to, do you know him? I met him when he was a pre-candidate, but now, I don’t know.”
Even so, it’s still more likely that South of the Border will be seen by more people than Stone’s two Castro movies. “Distribution came faster because when I did the Castro movies, they were post-9/11 and there was more of that Cold War McCarthyism in the air – and there still is. I think it’s gotten a little bit softer now and I think there’s more acceptance that there could be another story in South America. We certainly are getting a better reception and the picture is staying out there. We’ll have 30 or 40 prints, so we’ll get TV, too, so it’s much better for me now then it was in 2003 and 4. The Iraq War was on, and I’d always relate Iraq and Venezuela, because these are two big oil states.”
“We got nailed a few times,” Stone mused on how people have been reacting the movie. “We were lambasted last night at the movie theater, there were protesters outside. They came out and meant what they said, unless they were hired.”
“About 14, let’s not exaggerate,” Ali corrected him.
Stone couldn’t commit to whether this will be his last world on South or Central America though. “I never thought Castro would be so right so quick about the pendulum swinging, I never thought this would happen. Listen, in my life, South America was a place where we always ruled. It was the Banana Republics, Rockefeller’s ranch in Venezuela. It’s the rich class that goes up north, they’re very sophisticated people. I never saw the South America of now happening. All I can say is that I hope they don’t all become right wing American corporation dictatorships, because what a drag to go back.”
South of the Border opens in New York at the Angelika Film Center on Friday, June 25, in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. on July 2, and then Chicago, San Francisco and more cities. You can see the full theater listing on the official site.