Great political documentaries (No10) South of the Border

While Oliver Stone seems to have given up trying to make decent fictional films, he does appear to have discovered a second career producing documentaries. Of course documentary might not be the right word for this highly partisan look at the new democratic left in South America.

I was in Seattle when the coup against Hugo Chavez happened and so was able to observe the US media reaction first hand. From what I saw the general consensus seemed to be that he was a dictator and that this was a democratic coup against his tyranny. As most of the world later discovered almost the exact opposite was true and Chavez was restored to power in a popular uprising. Even today though US journalists compare Chavez to Osama Bin Laden and state that he is a direct threat to America. That said it could equally be argued that Chavez hasn’t always helped his own cause in this regard, meeting with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Against this is the fact that US diplomats and politicians have done worse deals with much worse people. Anyone remember that footage of Donald Rumsfeld  shaking hands with Saddam Hussein?

The United States has dominated South America for over a hundred years. It has used military force, covert assassinations and economic pressure in order to extend its influence, with the IMF being its current favourite weapon of choice. However this has produced pressure from the left with several socialist leaders coming to power in the last decade. This includes Evo Morales of Bolivia and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.

Stone interviews most of them about what they hope to achieve and why, although the main focus seems to be on Chavez. Interspersed with these interviews is plenty of footage from US TV where countless talking heads accuse these democratically elected leaders of everything under the sun from massacres to drug use.

It should be noted at this point that there are genuine questions about some of their leadership decisions. Hugo Chavez in particular has been prone to anti-democratic tendencies in recent years. However if you’d been demonized in the global press and then almost killed in a US supported coup you’d probably be less than friendly to your enemies too. As Stone argues repeatedly, we often turn a blind eye when our friends and allies commit human right abuses, (look at the governments of Pakistan and Colombia for instance), yet when the South American left challenges US hegemony they are held to a different standard.

One complaint I had with this documentary is that Oliver Stone, while a very talented director, isn’t particularly gifted as an interviewer. He isn’t helped by the fact that all of the interviews are done through translators which doesn’t aid the ebb and flow of the conversation. His question to Christina Kirchner of Argentina about how many shoes she has is also a bit odd as it immediately raises the image of Imelda Marcos.

Generally he asks the softest of soft questions but this isn’t necessarily a problem. If the film was designed to be a hard-hitting investigation of democratic practises in South America it would probably be a failure. As an attempt to show a different side of the story through meetings and conversation then I’d say that it succeeds.

While I’d recommend South of the Border as a counterbalance to the decades of not always accurate mainstream reporting of South America, there are better and more analytical documentaries about this subject available. John Pilger’s The War Against Democracy would probably be at the top of my list. South of the Border is still entertaining and informative though, even if it is largely polemic.

Here is the trailer for South of the Border:

For a full list of great political documentaries please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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