There has never been a richer time for documentaries, nor a greater need of them.
As the mainstream media loses its depth of focus, journalist documentarians are picking up the slack. On the financial crisis, there's not only Michael Moore's heartfelt (if meandering) Capitalism: A Love Story, but the more insightful Cannes hit Inside Job, from Charles Ferguson, which Sony Pictures Classics will release this fall. Among the most popular films at Sundance and the recent Los Angeles Film Festival were a number of docs, led by Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim's education call-to-action, Waiting for Superman. "Films like this don't get made," he said the LAFF screening. "It's too tough." Thanks to Participant, Walden Media's Phil Anschutz, and Bill Gates, however, the movie not only got made but will be seen, as big-studio Paramount is putting a push behind a movie that as Guggenheim says, "pulls no punches. It's the hardest thing I've ever done." The movie, which has drawn some controversy because it hits teachers' unions hard, made me as angry as I've been in a long time. Enough to try and do something to fix education.
On the Afghanistan conflict, Restrepo puts you inside war like you've never seen it before, in the deathly Korangal Valley. And another upcoming doc is a heart-breaking drama about human values, The Tillman Story. Both are must-sees.
With South of the Border (in select theaters), Oliver Stone catches us up with the recent history of South America, which has been woefully misrepresented in the press both stateside and in South America, where the media is dominated by private companies owned by wealthy families. Opening night at Laemmle's Santa Monica 4-Plex, Stone managed to push past a noisy protest headed by activist Maria Conchita Alonso, who disapproves of the filmmaker's friendly portrait of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Stone has been a student of Latin America since we both first visited Cuba and met Fidel Castro at the Havana Film Festival in 1987.
This movie provides an educational and informative alternative perspective from our nightly news, which tends to employ such buzz words as "human rights," "terrorism" and "freedom." "It unturns a rock," says Stone. Clearly, despite what we may hear, Chavez is a democratically elected leader who "refuses to accept the dictates of Washington," as the movie puts it. And President Obama recognized that when he had the temerity to shake his hand. (He has not seen South of the Border yet.) Venezuela gave as much money to Haiti as the U.S. did, and donates to charities for poor families in America. Much of the movie's ire is directed at the two Bush administrations. "You are a donkey, Mr. Bush," says Chavez at one point, making fun of the American media's accusing him of building the Iranian atomic bomb. His giant silos were for corn.
As Stone indicated when a group of international journalists sat down with him in Cannes (video here), he considers the International Monetary Fund to have hurt more than it helped South American countries' recent financial problems. The more the countries have distanced themselves from America's "predatory capitalism" in favor of their own interests, using their oil wealth to benefit their citizens, and stayed clear of the IMF, it seems, the better.
Does Stone perform like a tough journalist here? No. He's clearly soft-lobbing in order to gain access to these presidents; Chavez helped to arrange his audiences with them. Stone and Bolivian leader Evo Morales chew coca leaves and kick around a soccer ball together. Stone also talks to the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Paraguay, and recently completed a six-country presidents' tour to promote the film. Stone admitted at the Q & A following the screening that Chavez can be "intimidating. He's a toro, a bull," he said. "He's too macho for our wimpy liberal media. If he looked like Woody Allen, he'd be in better shape."
Meanwhile, Stone is busy prepping the fall release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, his ten-hour Secret History of the U.S. for TV and his third interview with Fidel Castro, Castro in Winter. You can't accuse this man of slacking.
[Photo, top: Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez; Davis Guggenheim and Paramount's Rob Moore.]