<strong>OLIVER'S TWIST ON HUGO:</strong> Originally intending to do a documentary on media manipulation in the United States, Oliver Stone (left) hit it off with Venezuela’s controversial leftist firebrand President Hugo Chávez (center), who introduced the director to other liberal leaders in South America. The resulting discussions became <em>South of the Border</em>, which opens in Santa Barbara this weekend.

Say what you will about Oliver Stone’s filmography, with its hits and misses, pretensions and intrigues. But the director’s interest in politics and matters in the world have led him into some fascinating corners. His real-world engagement has most recently manifested in South of the Border, a rough-and-ready, hardly objective, but largely compelling quick-hit overview of the changing socio-political landscape in Latin America. The film had its U.S. premiere as part of January’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, with the director in-house to talk freely afterward.

By Hollywood’s “coming to a theater near you” sensibility, Stone’s biggest news of the season is still Wall Street 2. Ironically enough, Stone was taking a break from that big box-office contender to follow his curiosity about the new Latin America when Border was conceived. He grabbed a lean, mobile crew and flew down to make his new doc, in fast, cheap, partly in-control style. As Stone explained at the Lobero, “This was done with my left hand, on the run.”

What results is a perhaps necessarily raggedy series of visits with important new Latin American leaders who have empowered indigenous populations and rallied suspicion of United States intervention and manipulations. A logical follow-up to Stone’s earlier documentary work about Fidel Castro, Border finds the director visiting and interviewing Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—and giving him a humanized presence rather than the demonized one served up by U.S. politicians and slobbering right-wing media—as well as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, and making shorter visits to Paraguay, Brazil, Cuba, and Ecuador, within a week’s time. The consensus opinion regarding U.S. pressures is that “absolute power is always bad.”

In the process, Stone pulls a Michael Moore by inserting himself into the picture and the film’s flow, but generally avoids stunts or showboating. He intentionally includes vignettes from a lighter, human side, along with political discussions and sequences of archival footage, in scenes of Chávez riding a kid’s bike in the president’s childhood home, and playing soccer and eating coca leaves with Morales. For all of its rough edges, Border is a welcome part of a continuum of new documentaries seeking to redress the mass-media blitz, alluded to by Stone: “We’ve become a headline culture as opposed to analyzing the issues.” Here, his role in the latter culture continues apace.


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