Tariq Ali on Making Movies with Oliver Stone

Tariq Ali interviewed by Kaleem Aftab for The List, July 23, 2010

The appearance of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez alongside Oliver Stone at the Venice Film Festival for the premiere of documentary South of the Border was one of the most surreal moments on any red carpet in recent memory. In the background making much less of a fanfare was Tariq Ali, the Lahore-born British commentator who was a prominent figure of the New Left in the 70s and 80s. Ali has published numerous books on history and politics, one of which caught Stone’s eye when he decided that he wanted to make a documentary on Chávez.

‘I got a call from Stone when I was in Paraguay,’ recounts Ali when we meet in Doha. ‘He’d read my book Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (2006) and said, “I’m Oliver Stone, do you know my work?” I said “yes of course.” I went to see him in LA and we got talking and he said, “look at what we’ve shot on South of the Border.” I watched it and then advised on the way it should be structured, especially on the content of the narration used throughout the film.’

Stone wanted to broaden the scope of the documentary from being just about Chávez to include other countries in South America that are turning their back on capitalism in favour of socialism. This is where he saw Ali as an invaluable tool. “He realised that a more interesting film was to be made by not focusing it exclusively on Chávez, but on South America and the changes taking place there. So he went to Bolivia, he went to Paraguay and eventually decided to interview seven presidents to show that it is not just one guy looking to change the system, but a whole continent.’

The 66-year-old began writing a narrative that would tie all these countries together and explain why they have decided to work together over the past few years. Incidents such as the 1979 massacres in Venezuela are highlighted; the economic meltdown in Argentina is explained, the rise of Lula’s left-wing government in Brazil and the negative impact that the International Monetary Fund has had on any South American country that it loans money.

Ali argues that South America should matter to Europeans because: ‘In Europe today there is no difference between the centre left and centre right, in South America what the left is trying to do means something and that should be important. The culture is Europe today is bland and conformist.’

Ali sees the documentary as an effort to redress the balance over what he sees as biased, politically-motivated reporting from the Western media. ‘The BBC has become essentially a propaganda tool for the British Foreign Office, so I can’t take it too seriously. If you compare the images of Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan between what Al Jazeera shows and what is shown on CNN and the BBC, there is no comparison.’

On the evidence of South of the Border, in Ali, Stone may have found a stabilising force to the mess, idealism and energy that power his films. May their partnership and the revolution continue.