I have no desire – particularly with an election quickly approaching – to enter into any sort of political discussion or debate and I do not intend to do so here. My discussion of this film will be about the arguments it lays out and their strengths, keeping my own beliefs out of it as best I can. It is not that I do not have strongly held opinions, I most certainly do, it's just that my opinions are my opinions and any attempt to convince people of my opinions will only serve to engender bad feelings, mistrust, and a general sense of discomfort amongst everyone involved. I don't begrudge others their ability to speak on such things and am more than happy to read the opinions of those around me – provided that they're stated with respect – I just don't care to express my own beliefs (other than that everyone should vote).
Filmmaker Oliver Stone has no such qualms. The left-leaning writer/director/producer has a very distinct world view and that view is on full display in his new documentary, South of the Border which is now available on DVD. The film finds Stone venturing to South America to talk with current and past Presidents of countries on that continent to discuss the leftward movement of the area.
The basic premise of the film is that the United States has a relatively poor attitude towards our neighbors to the south, often dictating to them what we'd like to see done and branding lawfully elected officials "dictators" and "enemies" should they choose not to abide by our wishes. Stone argues that these are sovereign nations whose citizens have elected officials and that if we were ordered about as they are ordered about we would be incredibly displeased. Consequently, the argument goes, we shouldn't be surprised when they are, and, beyond that, these leaders are actually doing some great things for their countries.
South of the Border spends the vast majority of its time with Stone hopping from one nation to the next, sitting down with their Presidents and asking those Presidents questions. In specific, he talks to Hugo Chávez (Venezuela); Evo Morales (Bolivia); Lula da Silva (Brazil); Cristina Kirchner and her husband and former President, Néstor Kirchner (Argentina); Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raúl Castro (Cuba). There are also some clips of U.S. politicians and news anchors/reporters discussing South America, but those moments take a backseat to the South Americans themselves. In fact, nearly half the film is focused solely on Hugo Chávez. With Chávez being one of the Presidents in South America who has made the most noise, had one of the more contentious relationships with the United States, and who is a man with a huge personality, the choice is a good one.
Watching President Chávez and Oliver Stone interact is really and truly an interesting experience. It also highlights one of the biggest issues with the documentary, namely that it is monolithically one-sided. As we have seen in other works by Stone, his world is apparently nearly black and white and that comes across very strongly in the documentary as well. Again, as best I can without getting into a political discussion, there are almost certainly two sides (at least) to the South American issues Stone presents, but he so quickly and fully comes down on one side, arguing so completely that the other side is entirely ludicrous, that he undercuts himself and that is disappointment.
Stone is a good filmmaker and had he made more of a nod to the opposite side before slashing it to bits, South of the Border would carry more weight. In fact, while some interesting discussions with all the Presidents are had, far too often it feels as though Stone – a smart man with a good grasp on the issues – is asking puff questions to support an opinion that he's already made as opposed to truly getting to the nub of the issue.
Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that South of the Border is like Michael Moore-lite. Moore, who also makes one-sided documentaries, goes over the top with everything that he does which makes his films more event-pieces than regular documentaries. Stone, on the other hand, takes the one-sided approach but almost entirely leaves it simply at a discussion level rather than doing much more (or much Moore, if you prefer) and that leaves the audience with more time to focus on the holes, or unanswered issues, in his argument.
On the upside, it is undeniable that the discussions presented in South of the Border are interesting and that Stone raises many valuable and worthwhile points. Additionally, whether most of his points are right or wrong, it is certainly the case that we in this nation don't know enough about what is taking place South America and the documentary is a great springboard to perhaps have us all learn more.
The DVD release doesn't just sport the basic documentary, it also contains several special features beyond the usual deleted scenes (which are present). Also included are two South American TV interviews with Stone, a piece on the work Chávez has done in Venezuela, another featurette which has Stone returning to South America with the finished version of the film, and a last one that has more questions Stone asked Chávez during his return. While they all are vaguely interesting pieces (particularly the new questions Stone has for Chávez), there is nothing there to truly change one's opinion on the film itself.
In the final summation, South of the Border is a perfectly interesting documentary that raises some very good points. Stone and his interviewees are all terribly compelling figures and well worth watching. Where the film falls flat is not in raising important issues, but in swaying people's opinions. If the film disappoints it is only because Stone ought to be able to do a better job creating his argument than he does. It is a film worth seeing and an area worth exploring but will leave you wanting more from everyone involved.
Article first published as DVD Review: South of the Border (2009) on Blogcritics.