Cuban leader Fidel Castro was interrogated some years ago by the New York Times, demanding to know why freedom of the press is not allowed in Cuba. Meaning, of course, beyond buzzwords, the inclusion of pro-capitalist reporting. To which Fidel’s checkmate reply was something like, we’ll allow that to happen when you allow a communist reporter on the staff of the New York Times.
Now years later, this reality in the more than ever corporate owned US media is far from a laughing matter, where the lines between who owns big business and who finances and controls the US media and what constitutes so-called news, are hopelessly blurred. Not to mention the concurrent pressure on journalists to self-censor in order to keep their jobs, in particular in the face of significant newsroom layoffs now with the economic crisis kicking in.
So where do news investigators seeking the truth find themselves in this moral and ethical quandary, while detouring around that dubious entity called freedom of the press? Apparently in nonfiction filmmaking, if a substantial portion of that impressive body of work lately is any indication. And most exemplary among those documentaries right now is Oliver Stone’s South Of The Border.
Dismissing corporate media accounts as annoying fiction to say the least, the multiple Academy Award winning director (Platoon, Born On The Forth Of July, Midnight Express) and decorated Viet Nam veteran embarks on a road movie of a very different sort. Serving as narrator, interviewer and filmmaker, Stone is in search of the real story behind the election of seven leftist presidents in Latin America, many of them demonized by a suspicious colluding Washington DC and US media more interested in political domination and control of foreign natural resources, and who knows how many conflict of interest personal investments by politicians and media moguls alike.
Written by eminent UK historian Tariq Ali (who had songs written in his honor by John Lennon and Mick Jagger) and Mark Weisbrot, a leading progressive authority on Latin America, South of The Border whether by design or coincidence, ironically shares its title with the deplorable 1939 western of the same name. Starring Gene Autry and a cast of Mexican villains, that film approached the notion of the southern border more akin to the current right wing anti-immigrant surge.
And in a very different ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Stone introduces the documentary with a gaggle of cackling imbecilic Fox ‘news actors’ mockingly misrepresenting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a cokehead, juxtaposed with Stone inviting the audience on a journey to find out who Chavez really is, and where he came from. Including the president driving Stone himself to the village and the hut made of palm leaves where he was born, along with the surrounding rural collectivization that has vastly improved the lives of the campesinos. And his continued efforts to oppose US meddling in the affairs of his country, who sabotage his government over domination of vital oil reserves. And attempted interference in his programs that address terrible conditions of poverty by promoting economic equality, and curtailing through nationalization the exploitation and enrichment of US connected corporations.
The history of imperialism then and now is linked in the film in great detail to its current propaganda arms, both the domestic and Venezuelan corporate media, while Cuba is seen sending in 10,000 physicians and free medicine to treat many impoverished Venezuelans who had never seen a doctor. And in effect, poverty in Venezuela under Chavez has been cut in half.
And though South Of The Border is steeped in detailed information and a vast corrective history, there are many casual moments of warmth, poignancy and humor to be had as well. Including Stone bonding with Chavez in an emotional exchange as two former soldiers in war; chewing coco leaves with Indigenous Bolivian President Evo Morales (contrary to US media propaganda, a substance in its organic state no more of a stimulant than coffee); and courageous challenges to IMF debt servitude by President Christina Kirchner of Argentina, who also remarks on how for the first time in history the leaders of the ‘new’ Latin America look just like the people who elected them. And in brief but similarly enlightening and euphoric sequences, Stone meets with the presidents of Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Paraguay.
Gritty, grassroots and genuine in spirit, South Of The Border’s salt of the earth scrutiny initiates a reversal of the tide of corrupted US journalism. And lifts the entire entity out of its debased opportunism, even if on the big screen rather than the smaller version for US audiences. In a case in which size matters, in more ways than one.
Cinema Libre Studio
South Of The Border opens at NYC’s Angelika Theater on June 25th, and at Laemmle’s Monica 4Plex 0n July 2nd in Los Angeles.
Cinema Libre Studio has been a leader in the distribution of social issue and political films that tackle timely issues. More information is online at: cinemalibrestudio.com and southoftheborderdoc.com.
PRAIRIE MILLER is a WBAI film critic, and host and executive producer of The WBAI Arts Magazine. She can be reached at: email@example.com.