If you watched Fox News for any length of time - and I couldn't, honestly, recommend it - the impression one would get of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez would be of a crazed, thuggish tyrant, generally out of his box on coca leaves, preaching an aggressive form of anti-Americanism. As Venezuela constitutes the third largest oil provider in the world, it perhaps behoves the powers-that-be north of the border to maintain the beadiest of eyes upon the Chavez regime. Having made attempts to humanise Fidel Castro in 2003's Comandante - a profile that sometimes seemed like a pilot for a new VH1 series, to be entitled "Behind the Beard" - Oliver Stone manages, in his new doc South of the Border, to tick off Chavez and several others more in his I-Spy Book of Latin American Leaders, taking tea (and, in some cases, the aforementioned coca leaves, a useful ally against the physical strains of high altitude) with Bolivia's Evo Morales, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, Brazil's Lula de Silva, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa.
What these leaders have in common, at first glance, is the way they've come to invert the traditional political pyramid, building towards grass-roots leaderships, rather than seeking to impose cast-iron rule from the top down; as Kirchner's hubby, the former Argentine president Nestor, phrases it, "now in South America, we have leaders who look like the people", which shouldn't be sniffed at in a region that has long been associated with dictatorships and political corruption. As Stone - one of America's savviest imagemakers - has grasped, we have entered a new age of perception politics, something equally applicable to the America of the North, where not to be with us is to be seen as to be against us (the divisiveness of shows such as Fox and Friends hardly helps), and Western leaders are prepared to overlook the flaws of those they want to get into bed with (Colombia, for example, with its terrible human rights record) but won't tolerate a democratic triumph if it doesn't represent the "right" result for their interests.
You couldn't describe Stone's line of inquiry - mixing professorial bluffness with chummy sycophancy ("I've never seen such energy!," he exclaims of Chavez) - as rigorous exactly, and this brief, 78-minute film is prone to lumping these leaders together in a popular front, rather than exploring any differences they might have between them; you could say the filmmaker's policy of cosying up to these New Bolivarians tacks closely to the established Obama line. (But then, wasn't Obama's own campaign, with its groundswell of grass-roots support looking to overcome a representative of an old, privileged regime, broadly similar to those of his Latin American counterparts?) South of the Border's optimism is nevertheless welcome at a time of ingrained political pessimism - and you even get footage of Chavez falling off a BMX. A nice £50 there for Stone from the You've Been Framed team, surely, even if the sequence does carry the implication the Venezuelan leader might have had more in common with Dubya than we thought.
South of the Border is on selected release.