Venezuela's Chavez brings proletarian star power to Venice

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 08 2009 06:45 AM | Updated as of Sep 08 2009 02:45 PM

VENICE, Italy – Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez leant proletarian star power to the Venice film festival Monday as he attended the screening of veteran US director Oliver Stone's documentary on his "peaceful revolution".

"South of the Border", which premiered out of competition at the venerable filmfest, "represents part of the Latin American renaissance," Chavez told AFP as he and Stone entered the Palazzo del Cinema's Sala Grande for the screening.

The charismatic Chavez had spent some 20 minutes on the red carpet greeting well-wishers, signing autographs, offering off-the-cuff interviews and bestowing a few hearty kisses before enjoying a standing ovation inside.

After the screening, he told reporters: "They say the market economy is our salvation, and that socialism is our downfall, but it's the opposite. What is important is for the people of the United States and Europe to know the truth."

The leftist leader is the central figure in the film, a look at Chavez's role in the bottom-up change sweeping South America.

Through a series of interviews interlaced with footage from US media and official statements, Stone's documentary is out to show that Chavez is not "public enemy number one" as so often depicted on US media outlets such as Fox News.

The Oscar-winning director tells the story of Venezuela's "peaceful revolution" since Chavez came to power in 1998, and how Venezuela's transformation has had knock-on effects in the rest of the continent.

Making the documentary was a "liberating experience", Stone told a news conference Monday at the 66th Mostra.

In an attempt to counter "the media's attacks on Chavez, the movie shows very clearly the level of stupidity in the kind of broad statements" that are made about the Venezuelan leader, he said.

"We saw the sweeping change in the region, which is a very important historical phenomenon that is not talked about," said Stone, 62.

"There are many problems still, but it's a wonderful change that's happened since 2000," he added. "Social improvement has been extreme in Venezuela.... The poverty rate has been cut in half, this is admitted by the World Bank."

"In South America you have social movements from below," said Tariq Ali, who wrote the screenplay.

When leaders such as Bolivia's Evo Morales, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo and Chavez "win elections and they actually start helping people, that surprises Europeans and North Americans because they're not used to that," Ali said.

Stone interviews each of these leaders, all of whom came from the bottom rungs of society, in "South of the Border".

For his admirers, Chavez, who grew up in a peasant family, is an emblematic figure of bottom-up change, says Stone, who directed the 2003 film "Comandante" about Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Central America war movie "Salvador" in 1986.

Interviewed by Stone, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner says in the film: "It is the first time in history that the leaders of so many countries look like the people they govern."

The film presents "a movement in South America to a continent (North America) that is unaware of it," Ali said.

"Why has there been so much hostility to Chavez? Because he challenged the Washington consensus, saying that the neo-liberal economy was not in the interests of the poor in South America."

Producer Fernando Sulichin said the film, which does not yet have a distributor, "is going to have a life of its own" after starting out with independent distributors and cable operators.

Political opponents accuse Chavez of manipulating the population and of destroying free speech in Venezuela.

They also warn of greater authoritarian rule after he triumphed in a referendum in February that could allow him to stay in office for life.