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South of the Border - Oliver Stone interview

Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez in South of the Border

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OLIVER Stone talks about some of the challenges of making his documentary South of the Border, which examines the demonization of South American leaders such as Hugo Chavez by the US media and attempts to paint a more balanced view.

He also talks about potential new documentary projects and why he was drawn back to Wall Street for a second movie.

Q. How has South of the Border been received by your countrymen in the United States?
Oliver Stone: I’m very happy to get it out in the US. I thought it would make Venezuelan television. It wasn’t done with a lot of hope because when it comes to South America we hear negative things about these people, especially [Hugo] Chavez. I had done Salvador the movie and two Castro documentaries but I didn’t really want to get involved because as Tariq Ali says it’s ‘a hornet’s nest’. But it became more and more interesting. And when I met with Chavez, he said: “Don’t believe what I’m saying to you. Go out there, into the field and see for yourself. Go to these other presidents of these other countries and see what’s going on. This is a big change. This is a social transformation in this continent that is unlike anything ever done before…” Except for [Fidel] Castro. If you look at the history of this region, there’s nothing like it.

Q. Why is that?
Oliver Stone: Reform is a tricky proposition not only because of the US corporate interests but also because of the local oligarchies that control a lot of the land and the resources in their own countries. They are very powerful forces, including the church and the military. So, the odds are long against any kind of social reform.

Q. Are you fascinated by the theme of power? Does power fascinate you?
Oliver Stone: It does, I’m a dramatist, I like the big picture. But I think the big picture’s what matters with the Chavez story because all this nit-picking in the US, and probably in Britain and Europe, is like looking for flaws. It’s a mind-set that’s very western. There’s interests involved, of course… like the New York Times tried to do to us, you pick apart some little detail, and say: “Ah, then the whole is off.” But the whole is not off, it’s on. This is a big thing that’s going on. It’s the first time in South or Central America where you have seen a unified movement of people who have the same goals of independence and preserving their own wealth. This is an amazing story. It’s not being reported. The United States is really effective at pecking away at these people. There’s an election in Venezuela in the Fall, there’s an election in Brazil, both of which are going to be heavily influenced by United States’ opposition.

Q. There’s a scene which opens the film, involving Fox & Friends, that is quite shocking in the way it depicts Chavez and what he’s doing. Is that the accepted norm in the US media?
Oliver Stone: I think it is. Fox & Friends has high ratings, they do that every day. They called Obama a dictator, a socialist and a Communist. But they get away with it. I mean they got away with that whole business about Obama not being an American citizen. I don’t know where it all ends. I think it’s all fiction at the end of the day – it’s like a movie. I think you have to have a sense of humour to live through modern times.

Q. So, where do Americans go for a more balanced view?
Oliver Stone: To the madhouse, to lithium, to more and more drugs… I don’t know [laughs]. What do you think Americans should do? You guys are lucky, you’re British [laughs].

Q. If you were a betting man, which of the countries you visited will have a solid base and continue going with this reform? And which are likely to slip back?
Oliver Stone: Well, that’s a very hard call. I’m watching it like a horse race. When we went and showed this film in Bolivia, we had 6,000 people turn up and cheer. But Hilary Clinton was next door in Ecuador trying to divide Ecuador from Venezuela. The State Department people are essentially the same people working in this region [as the Bush administration]. [President] Obama is Bush not so lite [laughs suggestively]. It’s a real interesting question but we’ll see what happens in two years from now.

Q. You say Hugo Chavez has been unfairly demonised by the Western media. So, will [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be your next project, as has been hinted, and do you think he’s been unfairly portrayed?
Oliver Stone: I don’t know… that’s a hot potato for me. Obviously, he’s gotten a lot of bad press in the West… If I did a film about the dear leader of North Korea, as has also been suggested, the question is why don’t I have the right to do it and why doesn’t he have the right to speak? He seems like a strange fellow, I agree, but wouldn’t it be great to see a real film about him.

The same thing is true about Ahmadinejad… I did make an offer three years ago to talk to him. The answer was no. Then when I was about to start W, the answer was yes. But I couldn’t come. It’s all mixed signals with Iran… they’re a little bit screwy, too, like North Korea, you can’t quite communicate, so you never get the right answer at the right time. I don’t think it would happen right now because I really am overloaded with documentaries and I have to keep my own life on track because they are punishing me in a certain way. It’s not simple to do these things. I’m doing a third Castro one, which is shot and coming out in the Fall, and I’m doing this 10-hour Secret History of the United States, which is a big deal.

Q. You mention that Hugo Chavez has tremendous energy, but what of your own energy? You’re doing this 10-part Showtime series… that’s going to be enormous. Is that you preparing to leave your mark on this planet with this definitive look, through your eyes, of your nation’s history?
Oliver Stone: [Laughs] It is a legacy. I looked at my children and I said they’re getting the wrong history… they’re all screwed up. Who am I? I don’t have a history degree but you know what I read a lot of history books and I can see a lot of flaws in them, so why can’t an amateur get in there and give it a shot? If you can make a film that’s interesting to the eyes of a young person that is somewhat accurate to the truth, because the truth is a very elusive thing, we don’t all agree on what happened in history, but if I could make some semblance of historical interpretation that holds the mark it would be a good thing to leave behind.

Q. Will you be highlighting some of America’s embarrassments?
Oliver Stone: Well, you have to be careful to avoid repetition because so much of that has already been done. When Obama went to Stockholm to give the Nobel Peace prize speech, I was disappointed that first of all he said that basically Afghanistan had nothing to do with Vietnam, which is an amazing story to me because having been in both places, I can tell you that they’re remarkably alike! But number two, he said that the United States had made this enormous contribution to the world since World War II.

You can say we’ve made enormous contributions but we’ve also made enormous mistakes and tragedies and killed a lot of civilian people… a lot over the course of time. So, this has to be dealt with because it’s not being dealt with in my country. It’s an ethnocentric point of view and it continues to be that way. I grew up that way… with my children it was better, they’re getting more balance, but it’s still not quite right – it’s not even close to right.

South of the Border

Q. We live in a climate where news programmes tell people what they think they want to hear… in that type of climate where it’s more and more difficult to make documentaries that aren’t perceived to have an agenda one way or the other whether it’s easier to get a receptive audience when you do a drama rather than a documentary?
Oliver Stone: I agree. You have a much larger audience for a drama. People want to be entertained and they look on documentaries as like going to school. I don’t. I think documentaries when they’re well made, can be exciting. But that’s the whole point of trying to make exciting documentaries.

Q. Is there a suitable anchor for you to make an Obama film yet?
Oliver Stone: I would say no but also never never say never. With Clinton, I never thought I’d do anything close to him but he’s certainly an interesting character. When you see the impact he’s had on the world…

Q. Obama has said that he wants Will Smith to play him…
Oliver Stone: [Smiles] I think the tyranny of now is that if you make that film you always run into that issue – it’s going to become now. When I did W., I was attacked in some quarters for not making it critical enough but I looked at the future and I was trying to look at the character of the man. The decisions… once he goes to Iraq it’s very clear what kind of man he is and what kind of fool he is too. So, once you show one decision that’s enough, you don’t have to go into all the embarrassments…

Q. Do you think that like your Kennedy movie, W. will be re-assessed by the people who criticised it over time?
Oliver Stone: Yeah, because I do feel like it holds water. I feel like it’s entertaining and that it’s a narrative that has a good spine. It’s a tough story to tell because he’s an inherently unlikable man to me but Josh Brolin inhabited him and made him empathetic, if not sympathetic. As a dope, as a man who has not a clue, he kind of has a certain charm. Whether he should have been president is another issue. He had a father issue too, which drives everyone and which drove him above all. He’s not a thinking man, so that’s not a good character for drama. But on the other hand, if you look at the Greeks, Oedipus was not a thinking man either [laughs].

Q. The US media is criticised for not asking the pertinent questions, so do you think you asked the pertinent questions in this movie?
Oliver Stone: I’ve asked some of them. The big picture, I think, is there. You can quibble about some of the details, you can nit-pick. I think the New York Times has done a fairly decent job of trying to deconstruct it. There are problems in Venezuela, of distribution, redistribution, at all levels, because it’s a rough reform. It’s coming from a very badly mismanaged government… badly mis-managed. The gap between rich and poor was gigantic. I can say on the broad picture that the World Bank would support the fact that he has cut poverty 50 per cent and extreme poverty 70 per cent; literacy is widespread, infant mortality is way down… the basic statistics are terrific.

Q. Did immersing yourself in this anti-capitalist theme fuel your desire to make Wall Street 2?
Oliver Stone: Wall Street is the antithesis of… you know what, the truth is it doesn’t work that way. On Wall Street, they’re all Republicans mostly and they’re definitely anti-Obama right now. They worry about business. But the bonds in Venezuela for many years were doing pretty well and they were making a lot of money off Venezuela. It still is a very rich country. There are problems, and there is a lot of criticism, but if you want to bet short or bet long you could make a lot of money in Venezuela. So, they’re not stupid. The bonds are moving. So, there is a market that determines what Venezuela is.

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

For all the bullshit and all the talk, the bonds on Venezuela move. That’s important to keep in mind. They did not move in Argentina for a long time because there was a default in 2002. This fella, Nestor Kirchner, who is in South of the Border, is a brilliant man because, for me, he combines intellect and will. He was able to effect change. But he did go against Wall Street completely. He defaulted on the corporate bonds, which has never been done. It’s very rarely done and he actually got away with it and paid back, over time, many of them. He’s restructured and he still has problems with Wall Street… but for Christ’s sake, the Argentinean economy did superbly well for six years with the Kirchners and has come back from death.

So, Wall Street has a very strange relationship with these countries… sometimes what they condemn, they get along with anyway. They can make money with Communist countries too.

Q. Can we learn from South American countries in terms of what they did to get through their economic crisis?
Oliver Stone: I think we should. I think that people controlling their own resources is very much at the essence of what America could do. This BP oil spill is typical. If America had control of its own oil we would not be allowing these companies to make a killing on oil. They shouldn’t be making this kind of profit on oil, or on health, on war, or on prisons. All these industries should be public industries, not private. Oil should be public. It’s too serious a concern with the carbon emissions in the universe right now… we have to figure out a way to make this thing work. So, on the big issues of these resources, they belong to the people. Water will be privatised all over the world now…

Q. So, was it inevitable that you would return and make a second Wall Street movie because it’s in your blood?
Oliver Stone: Well, I loved the idea because it’s my first franchise movie. To make a business movie that turns into a business is amazing. I wanted to revisit the story and follow it up because we’ve reached a new level of greed. Greed is still good, it seems. I’m shocked at the exaggeration of wealth. I thought that era was coming to an end in 1987 but it kept going and going and going… It reached unbelievable proportions. Returning 23 years later, so much has changed beyond computerisation… Artificial intelligence seems to be running the country, the economic system. It seems to have its own current, like nature.

Certainly, the banks have changed their mandate completely. The banks are now no longer banks, there is no stability in our economy, it’s all volatile. You pick up the paper tomorrow morning and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s potentially a disaster every day. People have to live like that and it’s not healthy. They’re going to die young, like in Russia in the 1990s. If you remember, the death rate in Russia surged up because everybody didn’t know what the value of the rubel was.

So, it’s quite possible that you’re going to see side-effects now, with people dying. Who wants to live to be old and try to put money aside in this economy? You can’t make any interest… you’re going to be living on barter. So, how do you live? These are big issues for the whole world and Wall Street is at the centre of it because of the greed, and the volatility. The banks are no longer banks, they’re casinos… they’re bookies who can’t lose money because they can bet long and short at the same time and they can make money going in and going out… but they’ll never lose money. As has been said, they take it for granted that they have a private mandate to be banks. Jefferson said: “Never allow these banks to run the country.”

There has to be some kind of bank that works, such as a central bank that would be funded by the public and they’d vote on bond structures. If you wanted to build something, you’d go to a bank and the bond would support that infrastructure. But it would be voted on by the people, so to speak. Now, we’ve reached this level where it’s all automatic. These people do it for private purposes… they don’t do it for public purposes. The public good is not even a concern. No bank in the United States right now is willing to lend money to anything resembling a public business, or anything that’s halfway good. There’s just no lending going on, even for housing. So, the bank thing is a disaster and has to be fixed, and it hasn’t been fixed with this Reform Bill.

“Read our review of South of the Border”: