Oliver Stone defends film ‘South of the Border’

Filmmaker Oliver Stone answered critical questions from students following the screening of his film, “South of the Border,” at Pepperdine University last week. Pictured, left: Professor Craig Detweiler. Devon Meyers / TMT

The legendary filmmaker appeared at a question and answer session at Pepperdine University following the screening of his film there last week.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Liberal and conservative ideologies collided last week at Pepperdine University as legendary filmmaker Oliver Stone, defending his views on U.S. foreign policy, the bias of mass media, South America and Hugo Chavez, appeared before students following a screening of his latest documentary.

Stone’s visit to the school’s Elkins Auditorium on Thursday was for a special viewing and Q&A session for “South of the Border,” one of his most critically divisive movies, pitting the Academy Award winner against an audience similarly polarized-humbled by his presence, yet questioning of the director’s apparent sympathies with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The cross-continental road trip that is “South of the Border” portrays Stone’s own personal attempt to humanize a South America ripped apart by civil unrest and bloodshed, yet demonized by the American government and right-wing media. Critics, who have perennially praised, yet blasted Stone for injecting what they say is an overly leftist view of history into period pieces “Platoon,” “JFK” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” took extreme exception with “South of the Border” upon its release last year.

In the film, Stone chews coca leaves with Bolivia’s Evo Morales, chats up Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raul of Cuba and trades jibes with Cristina Kirchner on how many pairs of shoes the female Argentinean president owns.

But he also devotes most of the movie’s screen time to Chavez, a man who, Stone believes, is a simple public servant with simple dreams to recapture the more peaceful Venezuela of his childhood.

“He’s an honest man,” Stone said of Chavez on Thursday. “I sense no corruption in him.”

But Stone has been accused of filming Chavez with a sympathetic lens, offering odd adulation to the Venezuelan leader, ignoring the president’s worldwide reputation as a power-mad dictator and censorship bully. It’s a sharp contrast to what Stone’s heard of his past work-that biopics on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were too harsh on the right wing.

Many in attendance at Pepperdine on Thursday agreed with this notion, opining that the picture presents an overly rosy, leftist view. One student, speaking directly to Stone, compared Chavez to Caligula: “Somebody who’s mentally retarded becoming emperor of the Roman Empire,” the student said.

The comment drew the loudest applause of the night.

Trust was one overarching theme during the night’s Q&A. Stone, deflecting mild insinuations that he is a conspiracy theorist, was asked at one point why his views should be trusted in spite of the film’s judicious mockery of the conservative media and its negative coverage of South American issues.

“Some people may say [the film is] ‘softball,’” Stone replied, “but at least it’s counter to what’s out there. Any time something happens, you have to look beyond the surface. Go a little further. Think, ‘Why?’”

Stone was also openly critical of the Obama Administration’s ineffective foreign policies. “Obama has not done anything in Latin America,” he said “We’re out there doing the same old shit.”

But keeping his filmic oeuvre close to the chest, Stone let the president off the hook; past commanders in chief, he said, set the bad precedent.

“People who are accustomed to power, like the Bush family, are not very human,” Stone said. “Those people are scared of me. They view me as a radical, as a bomb thrower.”

The university’s Latino Student Association (LSA) hosted Thursday’s event. It was a big coup for the LSA, which almost failed in getting Stone to attend.

“We’d been working on this since last semester,” said LSA president Octavio Hernandez III. “It was just divine intervention.”

Hernandez was visiting Argentina last year for a student exchange study program when he saw billboards for “South of the Border.” He went to see the film, came back to Malibu and asked Professor Craig Detweiler, director of the school’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, to screen it.

Detweiler’s blunt answer to Hernandez: “I don’t show movies. I interview filmmakers.”

However, Detweiler said, this dictum came with one proviso: “If you get Oliver Stone, I’ll show the film.”

Through some persistence and navigation of Stone’s management company, Hernandez and the LSA did just that, securing the director for his Thursday appearance. It was framed as part of a two-week Oliver Stone symposium of sorts; one week prior, his “9/11” was screened at the Elkins Auditorium, setting the stage for last week’s in-person event.

Detweiler said Stone was an ideal choice as a guest.

“Probably no one is [more] attuned to political conversation than Oliver Stone,” he said. “At this stage in his career, he’s sort of going more independent than ever.”

Asked what is his continued inspiration as a filmmaker, Stone said, “Passion. Anger. I think rage. There are a lot of things wrong. We have an obligation to do things better. How can I not be upset?