Oliver Stone targets U.S. policy in South America in ‘South of the Border’

It’s a Monday night on the Westside of Los Angeles, and Oliver Stone is causing trouble.

The provocateur filmmaker has just finished showing his new documentary “South of the Border” — a shameless if genial piece of agitprop about leftist leaders in South America and Cuba — to a group of Southern California intimates and progressives. From the stage after the film, inside the lobby screening room of the marble-and-glass Century City offices of Creative Artists Agency, Stone is running through U.S.-perpetrated injustices and misperceptions in South America as he sees them.

The Americans under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are working to destabilize democratically elected leaders. The American media perniciously spread rumors that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suppresses the media (“it’s a total lie ... Venezuela isn’t China”). The American public has been misled about the South American environmental and economic policies. And U.S. military adventures around the world foretell the end of American dominance as we know it. “Fidel used to say that Che said that it will be the end when America has three Vietnams, and we’re almost at the point,” Stone pronounces.

Stone is always eager to needle the right with his brazenly ideologically driven filmmaking. As the CAA event shows, a session with Stone can feel like a college course, with the director as the professor and audiences as the wide-eyed freshman-year class. He is happy to pepper his responses with numbers and factoids: about gross domestic product, about oil production, about poverty levels.

But the director’s filmic methods for teaching that class have shape shifted in “South of the Border,” which was scheduled to open this weekend in limited release across Southern California. Unlike “JFK” or “Born on the Fourth of July,” where Stone provoked ire for using a feature-film format to pass off his views of history, Stone touches a different nerve here: He’s using the ostensibly truth-telling format of nonfiction film to expose his views of (in)justice. (It’s most akin, perhaps, to his first Cuba documentary, “Commandante,” which became embroiled in a controversy when HBO refused to air it because they said it didn’t push Fidel Castro hard enough on crackdowns in that country.)

In the new film, Stone crisscrosses South America lobbing mainly gentle questions at six leftist leaders, spending particular time with Bolivia’s coca-grower-trade-leader-turned-President Evo Morales and Venezuela’s polarizing leftist Chavez, gaining access and currying favor with them at the same time. From where, Mr. Chavez, did you get the courage to stand down the America-centric International Monetary Fund, he asks the leader. How good, Mr. Morales, does it feel to chew coca leaves? (The two proceed to do just that together.) And what is it like, Raul Castro, to know your brother was such a pioneer in squaring off against the Americans?

It’s a survey course of modern Latin American politicians and their relationship with America and Americans, but after a fashion; those hoping for context on the opposition or even the people these leaders govern will be forced to look elsewhere.

For his part, Stone says that the point of the film is not to explore every wrinkle in modern Latin American society but to offer a cinematic corrective to stateside perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. “This issue is much larger than these six countries,” Stone says in a phone interview the morning after the screening. “We’re still subscribing to the Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz doctrine of unilateral control of the world. Obama is a puppet president in that regard.”

Those who have helped Stone put together the film say that it’s a much-needed opposition voice to an American media that ignore and distort South America. (The film is sprinkled with examples of blithe hyperbole, mainly from Fox News, about the evils of various South American leaders). “What we’re trying to do is show that the media doesn’t report what’s really going on in South America, that there’s another side that never gets covered in the United States,” “South of the Border” producer Fernando Sulichin said in an interview from the Cannes Film Festival last month. A suave, Argentinean-born, Paris-dwelling producer, Sulichin helped arrange access to many of the leaders for Stone.

For all its political preoccupations, however, South of the Border” focuses heavily on economics and financial policy. Its main concern lies with the way the U.S. has sought to impose a system, and how these leaders have, in Stone’s view, nobly resisted and turned around their country.

To spread this gospel, Stone, Sulichin and others have embarked on a barnstorming tour that’s one part global media rock show and one-part grassroots campaign. Over the last two months, they’ve shown the film to government leaders in Madrid, to tastemakers in New York and to several thousand peasants in the rural Bolivia city of Cochabamba, a flashpoint for the water wars that seize Bolivian politics.

In Los Angeles, they find a group sympathetic to their message. The assembled forms a motley crew that includes Benicio del Toro (the actor, who once played Che Guevara, moderates the Q&A), the action-movie director Brett Ratner (he asks a question about Noriega, Stone calls him “Bart”); Fox movie studio chief Tom Rothman, who pats Stone on the back and stands to the side listening carefully to the Q&A; and a bevy of real-life characters whom Stone has made famous, including activist Ron Kovic and journalist Richard Boyle, the people upon whom on which Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Salvador” are based.

There are few at the screening who lift their voice in opposition to the film, although controversy hovers anyway. Three days before the event, the New York Times ran a piece calling out Stone for what it termed “mistakes, misstatements and missing details,” for whitewashing the leaders’ records and for self-selecting experts.

Stone and his two researchers responded with a detailed, 1,750-word blog post laying out why these were not mistakes and calling the article a “very dishonest attempt to discredit the film.” At the screening, producers are still visibly angry about the piece, noting that the writer, the paper’s longtime Latin American expert Larry Rohter, was not to be trusted because he had rightist sympathies and also had been banished from Brazil by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (The Brazilian government once briefly ordered Rohter out of the country after Rohter wrote a story about Lula’s potential drinking problem.)

“The guy [Rohter] is wedded to a point of view. He supported the Contras,” Stone says in the interview. “I think it’s systemic at the paper. Perhaps there’s an unconscious racist bias that they don’t recognize against dark-skinned races,” he adds. (Rohter did not return a call for comment.)

It’s easy to mock Stone as knee-jerk and naïve. At least some of that he brings on himself, with bombastic claims made in sincere conviction. Like another provocateur leftist filmmaker, Michael Moore, Stone has the ability to get normally placid people angry and to agitate even those who see themselves as leftists.

“Oliver Stone views Hugo Chavez and other leaders as heroic protagonists in a David-and-Goliath drama rather than people who deserve critical and political analysis,” says Marc Cooper, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and longtime L.A. Weekly columnist. Cooper is a longtime supporter of leftist causes and worked for Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s, but he sees little value in how Stone has chosen to tackle South America. (Cooper is well versed in Stone’s politics and the issues in the film but acknowledges that he has not yet seen “South of the Border.”)

“Oliver Stone is right that the American mainstream media ignores most of South America, and when it does cover it, its through a predictable optic. But the antidote to that is the truth. It’s not to create caricatures out of the leaders, and that’s what Oliver Stone does with them. He’s an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful guy. But he shouldn’t be making documentaries, or whatever you want to call them.”

Indeed, for all the research that went into the film, missing are questions even high-schoolers would want answered. (A producer says that some tougher questions could be included on a DVD of “South of the Border.”

Still, after witnessing Stone on the stump over a period of six weeks — in Cannes last month for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and now for “South of the Border” — it’s hard not to have a certain respect for him. Few Hollywood directors show this kind of intellectual combativeness or conviction, and even when Stone comes off as cringingly off-base, it’s difficult not to admire the feistiness and wonkiness of a man who could just as easily collect his studio paycheck and go home.

At the L.A. screening, Stone shows that pugnaciousness: “South America bugs me because it’s in my backyard.” He cites what he says are dozens of U.S.-led coups. “And the American public doesn’t know anything about it.” The group soon retires to a reception in the lobby, but Stone stays in the theater greeting everyone who comes up to him, rattling off more claims and statistics.