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Oliver Stone’s documentary falls flat in Venezuela

Chavez-friendly film is billed as a road trip across South America to explore media misperceptions.

Oliver Stone, South of the Border
A scene from Oliver Stone's film "South of the Border" is displayed on a TV screen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, June 1, 2010. (Daniel Caballero/Reuters)

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.