Filmmaker Oliver Stone

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Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker explains why he made the controversial new documentary South of the Border, which explores the relationship between the U.S. and South America.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Oliver Stone back to this program. The three-time Academy Award winner is set for a busy year with the release of his sequel to Wall Street in the fall. More on that in a moment, I suspect.
Before that, though, you can catch his thought-provoking new documentary called South of the Border. The project focuses on the social and political movement in South America. Here now a scene from South of the Border.
Tavis: I’m sure we’ll have fun talking about this documentary in just a second. First, just because it’s curious to me, I’m always fascinated by how people perceive their surroundings when they walk on the set. So being a director, I guess I should expect no different. The first question you asked when you sat down is “Where are the cameras? How many cameras do we have?” Is everything okay?
Oliver Stone: Well, three, I think, you have, unless I’m being ambushed or something.
Tavis: (Laughter) I love that question, though. He sits down, he wants to know where are the cameras, how are we shooting this thing and then you insist that we turn the monitor around so that you wouldn’t see yourself.
Stone: Well, it’s distracting to see yourself talking. You know, it takes your distraction. I want to stay focused with you.
Tavis: Okay. I like that (laughter). You get a handshake for that. I appreciate that.
Stone: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m just always curious as to peoples’ process particularly when they’re a director. This project, South of the Border, correct me if I’m wrong here. I have read and I popped it in and saw it last night myself.
My sense is that you want to challenge – my words, not yours – challenge, correct, take head-on the mainstream media misperceptions of some of these countries and their leaders. Is that accurate?
Stone: Well, that’s pretty heavy. I mean, that’s like me against a legion, you know. You can’t win that battle. What you can do is simply go down there and tell what you see and show what you see and let – you know, when I went to see Chavez, he said, “Don’t take my word for it. Talk to the other leaders in the region.”
He sent me to see the six other countries. They speak for him and they speak for their region. More important than Chavez is the story of these six countries with tremendous natural resources controlling their own resources for their people. This is a big issue in our time not just for South America, but for America too.
Tavis: But if you didn’t think that the mainstream media has misperceived what’s happening there, you wouldn’t go there, I assume.
Stone: Well, if everyone were telling what I thought was happening down there, no, I wouldn’t have shot this.
Tavis: Okay. To your point now, what is it then that you think that we are not being told?
Stone: Oh, the first big thing we’re not being told is that this thing was going on for about ten years and is an enormous historically significance because this is the first time when, you know, six of these countries have gotten together with democratically elected presidents who are from the people, who came up from the roots, many of them poor.
One was a liberation theology priest, one was an Indian, one’s a soldier who was elected three times. The Kirchners were economists and lawyers and they really turned their economy around hugely. They threw out the International Monetary Fund. And in Brazil, you have a trade union leader, Lula da Silva.
So these are an amazing cast of characters at one time and they have changed the nature of their economies. They’ve all grown their economies. You have to keep in mind from the Reagan years from 1980 to 2000, the economies did not grow in Latin America. The growth was very minimal. Suddenly in 2000, there’s spurts in all these countries.
Venezuela, much chastised by our media, has grown 90 percent the gross national product. True, there’s been a letdown recently in the last three quarters because of the recession. But for those six years, 90 percent growth. He cut poverty 50. He cut extreme poverty 70 percent.
Now the criticism comes from the top. You know, it comes from that 20 percent that controlled the country before, that had the rich people, the oligarchy, the people who were working for the multi-national corporations, taking the resources, taking the wealth out of the country and bringing it to their own countries. That’s where America stands guilty.
Tavis: To your point about where America stands guilty, whether it’s the Bush administration or the Obama administration –
Stone: – no difference.
Tavis: Everybody seems to have a beef or an issue with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Why do you think that is?
Stone: Also Morales in Bolivia. In Bolivia, they took their natural gas back.
Tavis: But why Chavez specifically? What’s our issue with him?
Stone: Chavez was the first one. He was the leader of the pack. You know, the oil had been nationalized in the 1970s, but it was run by corrupt bureaucrats or technocrats around the PDVSA Company. Chavez cleaned it out and made sure that the profits from oil, CITGO in America, went to the people.
There’s been a huge differential in that. He cleaned it up and he’s been trying to clean up various industries and it’s very hard. You know, it’s hard for structural reform. It takes time. There’s a lot of corruption in Venezuela. It goes many years before him. But it comes from colonialism basically.
It was a very badly run country. The profits were taken overseas abroad, rich people abounded in Venezuela. We know all about them and, you know, the Rockefellers owned a lot of the land down there. This was a true oligarchy, run like an oligarchy, for the United States’ benefit as has most of Latin America and South America. It’s no different than Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala.
Tavis: If I’d wanted to, I could have done this. I didn’t want to waste our time doing it, but because the stuff is so easily found all over the internet – you know where I’m going with this.
You know, on the regular, there are statements made by Chavez that cause people in this country to shudder, all kinds of things, about everything that Chavez – as you know, he’s not shy about speaking his mind. So he has made all kinds of comments about all kinds of things. None of those statements give you reason to believe that he’s gone a bit off the range?
Stone: No, no. Listen, I was with him not too long ago. I was with him in 2007 and 2009. I mean, he’s under attack, but he’s a free man and I think sometimes he speaks without perhaps – he’s a big bear of a man. He’s gruff, you know, and he sometimes speaks off the cuff. He is a popular leader, but he serves the people. He’s not corrupt in any way. I find him a free soul.
Tavis: Off the cuff remarks, off the wall remarks, two different things. You think they’re off the cuff, not off the wall?
Stone: Well, I don’t know which ones you’re referring to. I mean, if he’s calling Bush – “the Devil was here yesterday” – you know, I think that’s a great comment. I think it’s true. I mean, at that point, Bush was going to war in Iraq against the wishes of the majority of the United Nations.
By the way, as somebody has pointed out, Chavez at the U.N. that day got the most longest applause of anybody there at the entire sessions. It’s quite something. So North America has made a big issue of everything he says, but, you know, Bush is the one who started the war.
The coup d’etat of 2002, you know, was initiated by the Venezuelan oligarchy and supported and abetted by the U.S. and we make that very clear in the film.
Tavis: I’ll recall that comment about Bush as long as I live. As you may have heard –
Stone: – well, he is the devil. He was.
Tavis: Immediately after he gave that speech, he came to a studio in New York, actually at the Venezuelan Embassy. My crew went to the embassy. We had him on this program. We interviewed him shortly after giving that speech at the U.N. that day, so it was a fascinating day to talk to him after that.
Stone: Listen, he makes mistakes. I mean, in the film, we have Nester Kirchner who’s his friend. He’s the ex-president of Argentina criticizing him. He says, “I like Hugo as a friend, but sometimes he should think about getting a successor to take his place so that the system works.” Right now, the system is still being –
Tavis: – that doesn’t concern you that Chavez appears to some that he’s setting himself up to be a Castro-like dictator?
Stone: That’s nonsense because he’s always faced enormous scrutiny on these elections. He’s had how many? Three times he’s been elected president. Three times. Each time, most transparent elections, better than ours, not only do they have an electronic ballet, but they force people to have a paper ballot at the same time so they have two proofs. You know, it’s far better than our Florida in 2000, you know.
So he was elected by a landslide, last time 63 percent, and there was a 75 percent turnout which is bigger than Obama’s turnout at 60 percent in the United States.
Tavis: These changes he’s making to the constitution, they don’t concern you?
Stone: Well, he puts them up for – they’re referendums, that’s all. He’s just saying, look, I’d like to get rid of term limits. I’d like to have a third term. They do that in Europe all the time. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it. If people like what you’re doing, they’ll do it. It’s a hard game down there. I’m not gonna say that it’s easy, but he’s not breaking the rules.
If anything, he’s very – I’ll give you an example. He fires people who were his friends. You know why? Because of corruption. Sometimes you’re somebody’s friend, but they get a little post in the government position and they steal. There’s always that going on down there. He fires the person and the moment they get fired, they go to the press and they say I’m a political prisoner, I’m this or that, you know.
There’s all this bitching and complaining. It’s not easy to run a government, especially one that had been so corrupt before. It’s like the old situations in these countries. When you want structural reform, you need time.
I think he might try to be president in 2012. He might win. The legislator is up for election in the fall and the United States, of course, is working behind the scenes, money and all, to get in there and destabilize it as much as possible. He will probably take a little bit of a hit because the economy has turned negative these last two quarters.
Tavis: Chavez, again as we’ve been discussing, never shy about expressing what he thinks about America and about its leaders –
Stone: – he likes Americans. Keep that in mind. Very friendly dogs. He gives oil, you know, discounted oil to 150,000 America families for five years. They called that a PR stunt. No other oil company would do that.
Tavis: Which raises the point I wanted to get to.
Stone: On Haiti.
Tavis: Exactly, which is whether or not you think that part of our pushback, the official government pushback against Chavez, has anything to do, as many suspect, to do with his relationship with Fidel Castro.
Stone: Castro is a model and certainly they trade and they have a right to trade. He doesn’t believe in the embargo. He sends discounted oil to Cuba. Cuba sends a huge medical corps into Venezuela. A lot of these people in Venezuela had never seen a doctor and their first doctor was a Cuban doctor.
Tavis: But Castro’s like a godfather to Chavez, as you know. I mean, I’m asking whether or not you think that scares people in our government that he views Castro with this regard.
Stone: By the way, the interviews show that Correa of Ecuador is there with Raul Castro praising the example of independence, not the way they rule the country, because democracy is impossible in Cuba because the sanctions and because of the pressure. But the difference between Chavez – and he’ll tell you very clearly – they are democratically lefted.
When he lost the referendum of 2007, he respected the result. There’s nothing that makes me believe that he would ever go against the will of the people. If his time runs out, which it might because people do get tired of leaders in office, they do, I just hope that he has somebody who can continue the system that he started.
Tavis: To your point about the system, do you buy his argument that what he’s engaged in is this Bolivarian revolution?
Stone: Yeah. That’s the way he sees it.
Tavis: Do you see it that way?
Stone: He calls it socialist. I’m not enough of an expert because I don’t know enough about Bolivar. But what he’s done is basically private business has grown too, by the way. That’s also overlooked.
They think that it’s all become communist because we still think in that Cold War mentality. It hasn’t. He has nationalized and that means compensated. It doesn’t mean expropriated. It nationalized certain businesses that were completely badly run or corrupt or monopolizing the marketplace. I’m all, like Teddy Roosevelt, for breaking monopolies that are corrupt and running this country.
We have them in our country too, you know. I think the oil companies could take a nice hit and we should hit all these oil companies with a windfall profits tax because they have made a fortune off oil in the last 30 years and they’re profits have gone up.
They haven’t reinvested them really in our society. They should help us find another resource for oil, another clean technology. That’s what they could do if we had a real tax fund. Like $100 billion dollars would do the job to get our new economy going for us.
What’s happened in the Gulf with the spill is an example of corporate irresponsibility. By the way, CITGO which is a Venezuelan company has a very clear environmental record unlike our BP.
Tavis: What’s the danger of our writing off what’s happening in South America? You can say Chavez is crazy, I mean, you can call the names, but something is happening in South America. What’s the long-term danger of us ignoring that?
Stone: Well, not only are we ignoring it, we’re actively working to get them out. We’re against the Kirchners; we’re against Lula da Silva in Brazil, although we’re definitely supporting the other candidates. There’s a big election coming up in Brazil this year. It’s very important.
We hope Lula’s successor will win, but I’ll bet the United States is betting on the other guy because he represents the central bankers. Wherever we can get our claws back in, by making them loans to the International Monetary Fund, any form of control. Whether it’s the war on drugs which is a big thing down there.
In Colombia, we have seven military bases. That’s our big ally in South America. They’ve been condemned by every other country in South America who are unified under this UNASUR arrangement now. They’ve condemned Colombia. That’s our ally. We have seven bases. What do we need seven bases there for, Tavis? It’s a war on drugs? What is the war on drugs?
Tavis: What’s most disturbed you about the lack of difference between the Bush policy in the region and the Obama policy in the region?
Stone: It’s a Bush light. You know, Obama has basically made a beautiful gesture in Trinidad. He reached out, they shook hands, he made a big deal about it in the United States, but he didn’t follow up with deeds. It was like his Cairo speech to the Muslims. It was a beautiful speech, but he didn’t follow up.
The biggest thing was this Colombian expansion of the military bases and also, the coup in Honduras is a big deal to them. Not to us because it’s a small country with bananas to us, but it was a crucial mandate for Obama. He failed the test. He didn’t do anything to get these thugs out.
Seven journalists have disappeared in Honduras since then, so it’s a serious business. You know, this is real human rights violations going on. This is not just you hear about Chavez. It’s no pattern of repression. So we support the bad guys.
You know, Hillary was down there a few weeks ago and there she was trying to separate Ecuador from Venezuela. She’s an agent of the old empire game. It’s a dead end for us. We keep overreaching. We want to control anybody who steps out of line, which is a regional power. Regional powers are, what, China, Russia.
In Turkey recently, when Turkey went into this Iran sanction deal, remember they got their head cut off and now they’re the bad guy. We’re fighting with Turkey. Also Brazil was criticized. These are regional powers. Venezuela with its oil – it’s got 500 hundred billion barrels of oil reserve – Venezuela is a big regional player. We’re making enemies of them. They’re not enemies to us.
We are saying – basically, you know what it is? The pact for the New American Century, remember from the 1990s, when Bush and Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz, wrote that pact about the American unilateral control of the world. We will brook the appearance. We will not allow for the emergence or any military or economic rival. I went into that in the W film I did on Bush.
This is our policy and, whatever Obama says, this is what he’s pursuing in Afghanistan. There’s been no real change in that policy. We have our empire; we are number one. We are the world’s policemen and we will not brook an interference in that. The tone is lighter; the words are lighter, but it’s a soft power.
Tavis: How do you respond – again, I was watching the documentary last night and going online and looking at what some people had to say about it. There’s some – no surprise to you – who think that you went too soft not just on Chavez, but on these other presidents that you didn’t ask enough tough questions.
Stone: Well, the fair and balance approach. That’s the FOX news. Frankly, you know, there is criticism in the film. It’s not up to date because I’m not a journalist and I was doing a portrait of a historical time. But there is a lot of criticism of Chavez in both the U.S. media in the film as well as the Venezuelan media.
The truth is, you know, they would not be happy unless the film came out against Chavez. I mean, that would probably be fair and balanced. But I don’t understand that because, in the long run of history, this man has done wonders for his country, not to everybody’s liking as anybody who changes things knows, but all the other presidents have too, and this is a great moment in time.
The U.S. has knocked off so many reformers over the last hundred years, but they’ve all emerged independently. Except for Castro, they all went down, every single one from Guatemala, Panama, Brazil, Chile, constantly. This is the first time we have not been able to do anything. Hopefully, this is going to stay stable, but right now we’re fighting actively to get rid of them.
Tavis: You’re not naive, obviously. You like shaking things up, don’t you?
Stone: No, I like –
Tavis: Yeah, you do. Come on.
Stone: If I were, I’d be more political. I’d be more overt.
Tavis: This isn’t political and overt?
Stone: Well, I like making movies. I love feature movies, as you know, but documentaries are fresh and they keep me humble and they keep me in the field. If I can contribute a little light to the worldwide cause and alert people in our country as to what our empire is really doing, I think I’d be doing some good in my life.
Tavis: When you say documentaries keep you humble, you mean by that what?
Stone: Well, you know, you’re out in the field, you’re basically rushing, you’re under uncomfortable conditions. These are done very cheaply and independently and they’re not generally very lucrative.
Tavis: How are you even focusing attention on this when everybody seems to want to talk about the Wall Street sequel?
Stone: Yeah, Wall Street is a good movie, but it’s somewhat tied into it, although it’s a fiction in the sense that we have characters based on real life. It’s a fun movie. You know, you got to keep people – it’s an entertainment. It’s a different goal, in a sense, than a documentary. But it does deal with the crisis of 2008 and it does point the finger at the big banks that are running the world.
Tavis: The timing couldn’t be better for that movie, huh? The sequel?
Stone: I hope so, yeah, I hope so. But the big banks are tied into South America, you know. They are the ones who make the loans. They declare what bonds are buyable, which bonds are not. You know what? The Venezuelan bonds did very well all these years. This is very funny, considering all the criticism of Chavez, the bonds made money for a lot of people, but that’s Wall Street. Wall Street runs the world.
Tavis: We agree on that (laughter). We absolutely agree on that. The documentary from Oliver Stone is called South of the Border and, of course, we are all awaiting the sequel later this year of Wall Street. Again, both of these subjects rather timely. Oliver Stone, always good to have you on the program.
Stone: Thank you, Tavis. Always a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.
Stone: Do it more often.
Tavis: We should do that more often.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm