Oliver Stone film on Hugo Chávez flops with Venezuelans

Oliver Stone's documentary 'South of the Border' grossed more in one weekend in the US than in nearly two weeks in Venezuela. Why has the sympathetic portrait of President Hugo Chávez fallen flat with Venezuelans?

By , Contributor

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    Oliver Stone (r.), a US film director, shakes hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as they arrive at the local premiere of Stone's film 'South of the Border' in Caracas Monday.
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Perhaps the biggest surprise about Oliver Stone's new documentary about Hugo Chávez and the rise of leftist South American leaders isn't that it's one-sided, shallow, or pro-Chávez.

It's that it flopped in President Chávez's native Venezuela, perhaps the one country where it was most expected to do well.

"South of the Border" opened in New York City on June 25, though it's been showing to South American audiences since late May. Chávez himself attended the premier in Venezuela on May 28.

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Despite round-the-clock promotion on Venezuelan state television and government-subsidized screenings in the capital of Caracas, local moviegoers have largely stayed away. The film grossed only $18,601 on 20 screens in the 12 days after its June 4 debut, Variety magazine reported, citing Global Rentrak. Meanwhile, the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It" grossed $2.1 million during its recent showing in Venezuela.

Mr. Stone, the Academy Award-winning director of "Platoon" and "Wall Street," has said his film aims to refute the demonization of Chávez and Latin America's other leftist leaders. It interviews Chávez at length, along with the heads of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Paraguay. Stone's past documentaries include "Comandante" and "Looking for Fidel," both about former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Stone sets the tone with clips from US television news reports calling Chávez a bigger threat to American security than Osama bin Laden. Refuting the angry, authoritarian Chávez portrayed in American media sound bites, the film shows a more human side to him and other leaders. Chávez at one point tours a corn processing plant, joking that it's a guise for producing WMDs. It's "a corn atomic bomb," he chuckles.

The film has grossed more than $40,000 in Argentina, $21,000 in Brazil, and more than $20,000 in one US theater in one weekend alone, according to Variety magazine.

Failure to address Chávez's faults

The film flopped in Venezuela, however, in part because of a local cultural tendency to reject excessive flattery, says Ricardo Sucre, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "The everyday Joe doesn't like that kissing up. In the Venezuelan context, excessive flattery generates rejection," he says.

Moreover, adds Professor Sucre, most Venezuelans see through the film's superficial portrait of their country. "It may be a fantastic story abroad but internally that story doesn't fit the Venezuelan reality," he says.

Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East, says Stone humanizes Chávez and other heads of state but falls short on context and background.

"In trying to demonstrate the wave of [political] change, it glosses over profound differences between moderate countries like Brazil and Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela," says Professor Ellner.

And while portraying Fox News and other US media as slanted and one-sided, the film itself falls prey to this trap. Stone asks no critical questions of Chávez regarding Venezuela's rising crime and inflation, shortages of electricity and food, or his orders to close Venezuela's opposition news outlets.

The New York Times calls it a "provocative, if shallow" film that offers a "brief, sketchy history" of South America, avoiding sensitive subjects such as Amnesty International's report on Venezuela's widespread human rights abuses. A review in the Huffington Post says "it's unfathomable that the same filmmaker who made 'Platoon' could rub elbows with the tyrant Hugo Chávez but miss the responsibility to turn the camera on the poor and oppressed of Venezuela."

Some Latin America media outlets, as well, have come out critically against the documentary. Argentina's Buenos Aires Herald calls it "more akin to propaganda than illustration." Alfredo Michelena, in Venezuela's analitica.com, an online magazine, wrote: "Stone accepted the bias of his work arguing that since Chávez has been demonized, he would sanctify him."

Preaching to the choir

The state-run La Previsora is the last theater in Caracas still playing the film, charging a government-subsidized ticket of three bolivars, or 70 cents. At a recent screening, none of the attendants identified themselves as Chávez opponents. For those who did attend, the film preached to the choir.

"I liked everything about the movie," Hungria Angarita, 76, says after a recent screening attended by fewer than 10 people. "It sends Venezuelans a very good message so we don’t forget what happened."

José Martinez, a college student who considers himself politically independent, says he appreciated Stone's critique of the US-based International Monetary Fund's actions in Venezuela. The film claims that former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez pocketed $17 million in the early '90s while ordering the violent repression of protests against his IMF policies, such as the liberalizing of oil prices.

Former President Perez also enacted cuts in social welfare, which several moviegoers recalled as "humiliating." Chávez, meanwhile, has created social programs to support the poor as well as defended the nation's dignity, says Ms. Angarita.

"Chávez was the only president to stand up to the US," she says, referring to the leader's famous 2006 UN speech where he called former US president George W. Bush "the devil."

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