Oliver Stone’s documentary falls flat in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — Few Venezuelans have seen Oliver Stone’s latest documentary, “South of the Border.” And for those who have, its impact has often been as polarizing as the media representation it aims to refute.

Stone’s film is billed as “a road trip” across South America, to explore “the social and political movements as well as the mainstream media's misperception” of the region. During the excursion, Stone cozies up to Chavez, chews coca leaves with Bolivian President Evo Morales and hobnobs with leftist presidents from Cuba to Argentina.

The filmmaker has said his intention was to produce a general portrayal of these leaders — who are often exposed to virulent criticisms on channels such as Fox News — for a U.S. audience. But critics say Stone’s one-sided take on Chavez and other regional presidents has failed to do justice to a multifaceted political landscape.

“A political reality as complex as Venezuela’s can’t be presented, not even in a way that favors the government, without providing another point of view,” said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition daily newspaper Tal Cual. “It’s a piece of propaganda.”

Chavez has embraced the film, walking the red carpet with Stone at the Venice Film Festival, and screening a premiere with the director in Caracas. In a May 29 posting on his blog, Chavez called on his supporters to view the film, saying he was impressed by its “revolutionary quality.”

“It’s not only a documentary that’s irreproachable aesthetically, it’s an act of bravery and lucidity,” he wrote.

Few Venezuelans, however, have heeded his call. The film, which opened June 4, sold just 3,865 tickets during the first three days — nearly 15 times less than that weekend’s top draw, Robin Hood, according to statistics from Jose Pisano, who heads 20th Century Fox in Venezuela.

There has been just one public screening, and for many of Chavez’s supporters, who live in ramshackle houses on the hillsides surrounding Caracas, $5 theater tickets simply aren’t an option. Street vendors say that despite requests for pirated copies, which sell for less than half the ticket price, they have yet to become available.

Omar Galindez, the academic director of Venezuela’s government-run Pedro Gual diplomacy institute, suggested that the government could show the film on state television or hold more public screenings, adding that its message is as significant for Venezuelans as Americans.

“It’s very important that (poor) communities see this,” he said. “It’s an election year, and (the media) will undoubtedly use all the threats and policies of destabilization, the smear campaigns, that they always do.”

Galindez added that Americans should also see the film to obtain a realistic perspective of Latin America’s shift away from the U.S. and toward social justice.

“South of the Border” opens in the U.S. today. Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said the film would be helpful to viewers who have a limited understanding of the history of Latin America, including its tremendous inequities and deep-seated resentment against the United States.

“It gives some insight into why these leaders emerged when they did,” Shifter said. “The main thing that’s left out is whether the alternative that they’ve put in place is a viable one.”

That omission has infuriated many critics in Venezuela. In a scathing review for panfletonegro.com, an online arts magazine, film critic John Manuel Silva called Stone’s approach “superficial,” saying he simply labels as “good” those leaders often portrayed by the U.S. media as “bad.”

“This is just as intolerant and reducionist as what he’s trying to criticize,” Silva wrote. He lumped Stone together with other Hollywood celebrities who are attracted to Venezuela “by the dark legend of the good revolutionary.”

Leftists in the U.S. have often revered Latin American revolutionaries such as Ernesto Che Guevara. And Chavez has attracted his own cadre of U.S. admirers, receiving actors such as Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Danny Glover at the presidential palace. Petkoff, himself a former guerrilla fighter, said such reactions — including Stone’s approach in “South of the Border” — are typical of first-worlders who don’t take revolutionary action in their own countries.

“They live in their own impotency,” Petkoff said. “So they live through any third-world guerrilla fighter or military leader that speaks out against the United States.”

In the U.S., the film is likely to draw people who tend to be sympathetic to Chavez’s stance anyway, Shifter said. And in Venezuela, that’s also what appears to be happening.

Gloria Guardia, a 54-year-old Chavez supporter, was one of a handful of patrons leaving a Caracas theater after a Friday afternoon screening.

“It’s important that (Americans) see this, so they realize that things aren’t they way they think,” she said. ““Chavez is managing the country very well.”

But Luis Perez, a 38-year-old businessman opposed to the government, said he had no intention of seeing the film.

“To hear more of the same?” he said. Chavez “is on television four or five hours a day — if you enter the theater and see his face again?” Perez trailed off. “We’re tired of so much of the same thing.”