Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the jocular knight of grassroots democracy in Oliver Stone’s paean to Latin American leftism, “South of the Border.” A predictable compendium of Fox News clips on one side and peasants glad-handing their leaders on the other, the docu offers little genuine information and no investigative research, adopting a style even more polemical than Stone’s earlier docus on Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. Helmer’s name guarantees cable play and Euro exposure, and the mix of interviewed pundits, flashy news excerpts and Stone’s relaxed chats with heads of state will certainly work best on the smallscreen.

Stone’s thrust — that Intl. Monetary Fund policy, backed by the Bush administration, was designed to keep Latin America subservient to their big, bad neighbor up north — is largely inarguable. Venezuela’s economic disparities, thanks to its enormous oil reserves, are among the more obvious examples of self-interested U.S. policy, dictated by the need to control access to cheap petroleum. Yet Stone doesn’t explain how that’s worked for the last 100 years.

To an even greater degree, Stone demonizes the “private media” whose name he cannot mention without a sneer. Helmer presents a full panoply of predictably ridiculous Fox News and CNN clips, all speaking of Chavez as a bogeyman in contrast to the nice, fleshy leader Stone pals with on the presidential jet. In Stone’s world, shades of gray don’t exist, and Chavez must either be the dictator of Condoleezza Rice’s warnings or an angel of democracy.

Some facts, such as Chavez’s referendums to hold on to power beyond constitutional limits, are ignored, though even Chavez’s ally, former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, warns that it’s problematic for one man to represent the revolution. So enamored is Stone with his subject, who has metaphorically dressed himself in the guise of South American liberator Simon Bolivar, that the director travels to neighboring countries to speak to their leaders, all with the idea of countering U.S. propaganda. There’s something embarrassing about the way he coddles up to these figures, asking Chavez what time he went to sleep, or kicking a soccer ball around with Bolivian President Evo Morales.

South of the Border” at first seems like a natural pairing with Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and the two were presented on consecutive days at the Venice Film Festival. But the two helmers are miles apart: Where Moore worships a sentimentalized Average Joe, Stone kneels before King Power. Fascinated with left-wing strong men, Stone rarely has time for the Everyman, unless they’re happy folk making music and cheering on their leaders.

While the poor are frequently mentioned, Stone doesn’t take a camera into the slums to interview them or speak to aid agencies working with the indigent. It’s the men in power (and women, such as Argentine President Cristina Kirchner) who entice Stone, as already seen in his docus on Castro.

Some credit must go to Tariq Ali, a generally more reasoned commentator who acts here as both co-scripter and talking head. Music fosters a triumphalist image of Chavez, complete with noble drum rolls to accompany the march of his personality revolution.

South of the Border

  • Production: A Pentagrama Films, New Element production, in association with Good Apple. Produced by Fernando Sulichin, Jose Ibanez, Rob Wilson. Executive producers, Chris Hanley, Juan Riva, Serge Lobo. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Tariq Ali, Stone.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Albert Maysles, Carlos Marcovich, Lucas Fuica; editors, Alexis Chavez, Elisa Bonora; music, Adam Peters; sound, Juan Carlos Prieto; line producer, Steven Pines; associate producers, Tara Tremaine, Suzie Gilbert, Victor Ibanez, Jean Pierre Marois. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 6, 2009. Running time: 78 MIN. English, Spanish, Portuguese dialogue.
  • With: With: Tariq Ali, Hugo Chavez, Bart Jones, Gregory Wilpert, Eduardo Porter, Scott Wilson, Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo, Lula da Silva, Raul Castro, Rafael Correa. Narrator: Oliver Stone.