By Amanda Eckerson
John Gaddis, world famous Yale historian on the Cold War, has a thing for foreign leaders. A big thing. By the semester’s end of his oh-so-sought-after undergraduate class, his propensity to talk about Mao’s interest in cigar smoking, or Gorbachev’s anxiety about public appearances, leaves students 1) entertained and 2) concluding that the cult of personality was the single most important factor in the Cold War. Oliver Stone’s film “South of the Border” is reminiscent of Gaddis’s class. While the film focuses on seven world leaders to elucidate the myriad of forces at play in Latin American politics, it lacks the framework necessary for understanding the more compelling social forces at play on the ground, ultimately glossing over the very core of the New Left philosophy in South America.
Ironically, Stone’s focus and style of shooting reinforces the very stereotypes he aims to dispel. The premise of the film is that what is actually happening in Latin America is disregarded and vandalized by the private media in the United States. While poder popular (popular power) is the basic tenet of the social movements sweeping Latin America, however, the film is solely focused on the leaders of countries. At times, it feels like Stone’s renditions of W or JFK, with opinion and fact merged with reenactments –only this time he is directing the presidents of modern day countries. Stone himself plays a major part in the film, telling Chavez to think of his grandmother then calling “action” as if it was a take, interrupting Evo’s discussion on imperialism to make him play with a soccer ball, asking Christina how many shoes she has. The access of a Hollywood filmmaker to these very real world leaders exposes the unequal power dynamic inherent between the global North and South; unfortunately, he does nothing with that access to do away with the shallow paradigm of good versus evil purported in our mainstream media, he just views it from the other side.
For someone educated but unfamiliar with the circumstances at play in Latin America, it’s a good introduction to the general philosophy of the Latin American left. The film covers economic independence and South American interdependence, national sovereignty, and a smattering of key concepts to Wikipedia later. The economic catastrophe of the 1980’s in Caracas alluded to in the beginning of the film (known as the Caracazo), the roots of liberation theology in modern day politics talked about by the president of Paraguay, and the everyday dialogue about colonization, economic imperialism and an identification with indigenous resistance, are internalized realities by all stratum of people in Latin America. All this, and it’s entertaining. Like eager Yalies in Gaddis’ class attest, conveying complex ideas through one-on-one access with the big bad boys makes them accessible, exciting and gratifying.
The real power behind the leaders, and the story still untold in South of the Border, however, is the movimientos desde los bases. Lulu came to power through the steel workers union he led, Chavez wasn’t assassinated because of the conscientious soldiers who disagreed with the military elites staged coup in Venezuela, the coco farmers and indigenous people that Morales represents have been the silent majority in Bolivia for its entire history. Stone is framing current day events and modern history with his film, and we should be as reticent to accept his lens, the importance of a few good men (and a woman), as we are to accept the equally shallow calls of dictator. The film is worth seeing. The point he’s trying to make, however, he fails to fully capture: the fact is there’s a fundamental shift happening in Latin America, and it goes far beyond a few leaders.