By Brian Brooks | Indiewire September 24, 2009 at 9:00AM
Latin American Presidents Hugo Chavez from Venezuela and Evo Morales from Bolivia spoke of democracy, social justice and a cautious opening in their relationships with the new Obama administration last night, when they were at New York's Lincoln Center with American filmmaker Oliver Stone to talk about his new documentary, "South of the Border."
[EDITOR's NOTE: indieWIRE covered Oliver Stone's "South of the Border" during a screening ahead of the New York Film Festival last September. The documentary will be released in New York Friday, June 24 via Cinema Libre.]
"I don't think we've ever had two Presidents with us here at the Walter Reade Theater," said Film Society of Lincoln Center and New York Film Festival program director Richard Pena last night. He cited many big name stars and filmmakers as well as the Dalai Lama as previous guests at the theater, but emphasized that this was the first time two world leaders graced the same stage. FSLC, in yet another politically-themed event leading up to tomorrow's formal opening of the New York Film Festival -- following Monday's Lincoln Center premiere of Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" -- hosted the U.S. debut of Oliver Stone's latest doc focusing on Latin America, "South of the Border."
Taking advantage of the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly here in New York City, Oliver Stone and the FSLC lured Venezuela's controversial President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's President Evo Morales to join Stone for a conversation about the new documentary and the state of political relations with the region.
"[Producer] Fernando Sulichin and I went down [to Venezuela] in 2002 and met Chavez, and came down again to interview him in '03. I felt the media was very harsh toward him, so I decided to interview him further," said Oliver Stone last night, on a brief break from shooting "Wall Street 2". "So, I started with [President Chavez] and then it expanded further." Along with the lengthy segment on Chavez, Stone also visits Morales in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, in "South of the Border." He also visited the leaders of Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador who all share to varying degrees Chavez's Bolivarian view. And, he also has a short clip with Cuba's Raul Castro.
Security last night was apparent - no liquids of any kind allowed in the theater - though none of the bag searches or metal detectors usually present at such an event were in sight (enezuela's equivalent to the Secret Service moved about the theater and backstage for safety checks). The event itself was surprisingly low key as both Morales and Chavez entered the room to polite applause while Pena introduced the Latin American heads of state and director Oliver Stone. Also in the audience were actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, who Chavez later acknowledged from the stage.
The latest in a series spotlighting the region, which began with "Salvador," starring Oscar-nominated James Woods about death squads in El Salvador in 1986 and later "Comandante" (2003) and "Looking for Fidel" (2004), "South of the Border" profiles the rise of left-leaning democratically elected Latin American Presidents, beginning with Hugo Chavez, whose self-described "Bolivarian revolution" earned the ire of the Bush Administration. Opening somewhat reminiscent of Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain's 2003 Toronto International Film Festival doc, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Stone's "South of the Border" recalls the temporarily successful coup against Chavez, when forces supported by the country's upper classes installed a new leader amidst a campaign of misinformation broadcast by Venezuela's media. The coup was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and Chavez - and later his growing list of political allies in the region, including Morales - grew a major distrust of the media that exists to this day. The film also offers evidence of Bush Administration involvement in the failed coup, despite official denials.
"I want to thank Oliver for his efforts and his courage," Chavez said from the stage following the screening. "He is part of the Axis of Evil." Both Morales and Chavez joked about being the "Axis of Evil," borrowing the infamous term from George W. Bush's state of the union address in the period after 9/11. Both leaders giggled while using the term throughout the evening, and even referred to the "D-word."
"You're like a little dictator," Chavez jokingly said to Pena who moderated the on-stage interview. "You're the one asking all the questions here..."
Condemning the "biased" media
"We kicked out the opposition, which was supported by the U.S. media. Our new opposition is the media," Morales said, also speaking on stage through an interpreter. "The media said, 'We need to kill this Indian,'" referring to himself. Morales is the first person of non-European background to be elected Bolivia's leader. Then jokingly he added, "But honestly, I'd be worried if the media starts saying nice things about me."
Throughout "South of the Border," Stone shows clips from American news broadcasts - heavily weighted toward the right-leaning Fox News - which have decidedly anti-Chavez and anti-Morales slants. Some replayed in the film are, in fact, quite laughable, with one group of reporters on a Fox News morning show displaying shocking ignorance about both countries, even as they call both leaders "America haters" and drug addicts.
"We are the enemies of misery, corruption and imperialism," defended Chavez, last night. "We are not the enemies of the U.S. We want all people to live with dignity around the world, that is our hope."
Talking directly about the movie, Chavez added, "I think these kinds of movies are subversive, but in a positive way. [Centers of power] have been attacking us, and we're not an actual threat to the United States and Europe. These people don't want the American people to know what we're doing at home. They fear that this might waken the American people. We're a democratically elected government, and we're making great changes [at home] through our democracy." Chavez went on to cite statistics in Venezuela, including a massive reduction in poverty and extreme poverty as well as near 100% literacy and declining infant mortality rates.
"Poverty is half what it was only ten years ago," added Chavez, who gave fairly long-winded answers, and then would stop himself, saying, "OK, I'll stop talking now..."
When asked about the potential for U.S. distribution, Stone was stoic, acknowledging that even he faces challenges that are faced constantly by filmmakers who don't have his marquee name. "We haven't had much luck in the past with films like 'Comandante,' but as Castro says, 'The pendulum will shift.'" Stone went on to acknowledge The Film Sales Company's Andrew Herwitz in the audience, who recently announced he will rep the film for North American sales. "North America is a tough nut to crack, but the pendulum always shifts."
"I was telling Oliver that it would be great if we could get CNN to broadcast this film in English and Spanish," chimed Morales, who had to excuse himself part way through the Q&A to catch a flight back home. Before leaving, though, Morales made an impassioned plea for the environment, praising President Obama's U.N. speech which called for immediate action on climate change, and added, "If we do not ensure the well-being of our mother earth, then we will never be able to ensure the hope of earth's people."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Obama became a major topic of conversation as the evening wound down. Chavez seemed cautiously optimistic about the still-new U.S. leader, but appealed for Americans to support him and again took a swipe at the media.
"I met him briefly in Trinidad at the meeting of the Organization of American States. I said 'hello' and handed him a book, and he responded graciously, and look at the amount of criticism he received," said Chavez. "I'm not an 'Obama follower,' but I do have hope...He criticizes me and I criticize him, but that's OK. We need to have respectful dialogue and criticism. The United States is a great nation, and it can become even greater if it can be integrated with the rest of the world."