Saturday, July 3, 2010

South of the Border

Bias is a tricky concept when it comes to political reporting. It’s what the right always seems to accuse left-leaning (or even mainstream) channels of being dictated by. But surely every news broadcast is colored by some political ideology or adherence. Whether it’s the deliberate distortions (or outright lies) of networks like Fox News or the free pass center-left organs seem to give our desperate-for-consensus president, there’s no such thing as purely objective reportage.

Questions of bias and inaccuracy have long dogged such leftist filmmakers as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore and, while one can easily question the conspiracy theories unleashed by the former in films like JFK, it’s less easy to dismiss the slanted reportage of the latter. Yes, Moore engages in a selective arrangement of facts – as well as a gut-punching rhetoric that often seems like he isn’t playing fair – but no more than his counterparts on the right, and unlike them his presentation gets much nearer to the truth in its active engagement with progressive change that will benefit rather than harm the average citizen.

All of which is why I can’t agree with my colleague and good friend Keith Uhlich who considers Stone’s new work of Moore-style infotainment, a docu-profile of left-leaning South American presidents, “near worthless as reportage” in his Time Out New York review. South of the Border may be “as distorted and evasive as the Fox News footage it so often demonizes,” as Uhlich notes – though not quite: nothing’s as distorted as footage Stone includes of Fox News reporters calling democratically-elected presidents “dictators” when the real dictators are the ones that the United States installed in place of democratically-elected Latin American presidents throughout the twentieth century – but with a key difference. While the extreme right’s take demonizes these leaders for their understandable anti-American bias, Stone, despite his omissions and obvious untempered enthusiasm for each of his subjects, emphasizes the most important fact about the state of South American politics: that after a century of being in thrall to the interests of North American and European corporations who pilfered the countries’ most valuable resources while leaving the people in states of extreme poverty or subject to torture, they’re finally being run by nationalist-minded presidents who are turning the nation’s assets to the benefit of the people.

Any other concerns pale in comparison and while the viewer may surely want to follow up with some additional reading for a more rounded picture, Stone’s film succeeds in contrasting the reports of the American right-wing media with something that approaches a more essential, even if only partial, truth. Once the viewer accepts these conditions, it’s easy to enjoy watching Stone schmooze with best-bud Hugo Chavez as he talks over the failed (American-sanctioned) coup attempt on his presidency or chew cocoa leaves with Bolivian leader Evo Morales. Or at least it would be if the unctuous director didn’t insist on putting himself at the center of every scene. As presented by Stone, the presidents are a varied and sympathetic gallery of personalities, from the fiery Chavez to Paraguay’s soft-spoken leader (and ex-bishop) Fernando Lugo; it’s only the filmmaker himself whose presence grates. Asking leading questions and insisting on his privileged position with his subjects, Stone’s as unbearable a presence as ever. For the rest, his film’s an engaging and, yes, informative look at a new trend in global politics that anyone who takes the word “democracy” to mean something other than American hegemony ought not to dismiss as quickly as the shit-spinners from the so-called "fair and balanced" media.

No comments: