Tuesday, 5 October 2010

film reviews: restrepo, south of the border

South of the Border (dir. Oliver Stone)

Leading with footage of Fox and Friends acting foolish, South of the Border seems to aim for populist agitprop a la Michael Moore. But Moore, for all his faults, is rarely sycophantic, and though this avoids Commandante's chummy pointlessness, Oliver Stone does little to restore his blunted reputation. If Stone's aim was to counter US attempts to characterise an uncooperative southern hemisphere as a threat, then he succeeds. But painting Hugo Chavez with the depth and nuance of a Che T-shirt hardly does the subject justice, nor do encounters with other South American leaders, so brief there's barely time to patronisingly ask Argentina's Kirchner how many shoes she owns or film Evo Morales playing football. We learn Chavez's baseball position (pitcher) and bed-time (3am), but the elephant in the room - Venezuela's human rights record - is ignored with a shrug that Columbia's worse; perhaps, but that doesn't absolve Chavez, nor does it absolve Stone of missed opportunities.


Restrepo (dir. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

Considering the controversy surrounding last year's Associated Press photograph of a dying US marine (deemed appalling by the disgusted and insightful by the agency), it's a shock to see Restrepo's cameras pick up and hold in sight a fallen American soldier. While upsetting, it is just one of Restrepo's brave inclusions, which together constitute fresh insight into the lives of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The anguished tears shed by the deceased's brothers in arms highlights something frequently missing from war documentaries; a genre all too often preoccupied with either celebrating machismo or demonising and deploring its subject (this despite co-director Sebastian Junger's tendency towards a gung-ho, adrenalised style in his written work). These soldiers aren't adverse to knuckleheaded cultural insensitivity, nor uncomfortably joyous violence; moreover, the film itself provides little space for the Afghan perspective. But Restrepo gazes unflinchingly on those at the heart of a contentious conflict and renders their experience viscerally and - most importantly - humanely.


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