Tariq Ali interviewed by Claire Black for The Scotsman, July 26, 2010
Standing on the doorstep of Tariq Ali’s impressive Highgate house, the echo of the rung bell fading, it feels like an auspicious day to visit. Flicking through the paper on a stuttering train en route to leafy North London, there was a story about the first public sighting for four years of the 82-year-old Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro.
Wearing a white, Nike tracksuit and looking spritely for an octogenarian, it transpires the pictures are a first volley in a media salvo mainly aimed at the US by the veteran revolutionary. Given that Ali, the Pakistani-born, London-based historian, novelist and firebrand commentator, has a long-standing antipathy to what he describes as American “imperialism”, I assume the photographs will at the very least, amuse him.
As it turns out, Ali isn’t that bothered.
“Well, actually, they’re not the first photographs of him,” he says sounding decidedly unimpressed. “Oliver Stone has interviewed him twice over the last three years. Oliver Stone has had amazing access to him and there are photographs of them together. Anyway, he seems alive and well.” Ali shrugs his shoulders.
Ali has collaborated with the maverick American director on his new film, South of the Border. Already known for his fascination with presidents, Stone has previously made films about John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W Bush, but South of the Border is something different. Ostensibly a documentary, it focuses on the rise of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his reformist allies in South America, including Evo Morales of Bolivia. It’s an unapologetically celebratory portrait. Shown first at the Venice Film Festival last year, and having already had its New York premiere, it’s proved to be just as controversial as Stone’s previous offerings, with critics objecting to both inaccuracies and its glowing assessment of Chávez.
“It’s very simple, very straightforward,” says Ali, sounding every bit like a man used to and happy about, ruffling feathers. “Its aim was very clear: in the United States in particular, but in Europe too, there has been so much disinformation about the South Americans and the Latin Americans, we just said let’s hear them speak. You hear the other point of view non-stop so there was no attempt to make a balanced documentary in that sense.”
Ali has written books about 9/11 (The Clash of Fundamentalisms), the invasion of Iraq (Bush in Babylon), Pakistan’s political situation (The Leopard and the Fox) and the rise of the reformist movement in South America (Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope). His involvement in Stone’s film, which he ended up co-writing, came about by accident, though. read more
Eighteen months ago, Tariq Ali got a call from Oliver Stone: could he help with his new film? The result was a powerful documentary about Latin America – and a new friendship …
Almost a year and a half ago I received a phone call from Paraguay. It was Oliver Stone. He had been reading Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, my collection of essays on the changing politics of Latin America, and asked if I was familiar with his work. I was, especially the political films in which he challenged the fraudulent accounts of the Vietnam war that had gained currency during the B-movie years of Reagan’s presidency.
Stone had actually fought in that war as a US marine, which made it difficult for others to pigeonhole him as a namby-pamby pacifist. Many of his detractors had avoided the draft and were now making up for it by proclaiming that the war could have been won, had the politicians not betrayed the generals. This enraged Stone, who detested the simplistic recipes now on offer on every aspect of American domestic and external politics. In the original Wall Street (1987), for instance, he had depicted the close links between crime and financialised capitalism that ultimately led to the crash of 2007.
The Vietnam war played a large part in shaping Stone’s radical take on his own country. One of JFK’s most striking scenes, almost 10 minutes in length, portrays a talking-heads duo: Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and an unidentified military intelligence officer (Donald Sutherland) are walking by the Potomac river in Washington DC, discussing who killed Kennedy. The Sutherland character links the president’s execution to his decision to withdraw US troops from Vietnam some months previously. For me, it is—together with the depiction of French officers calmly justifying torture in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic Battle of Algiers, and the Greek far-right plotting to kill the leftwing deputy Lambrakis in Costa-Gavras’s Z—one of the three finest scenes in political cinema.
A steady flow of jeremiads from critics on the left and the right denounced this particular scene in Stone’s JFK as pure fantasy. Later research, however, including the recently published biography of one of the Kennedy administration’s leading hawks, McGeorge Bundy, has overwhelmingly vindicated the director’s approach. Kennedy had indeed decided to pull out—largely on the advice of retired General Douglas MacArthur, who told him the war could never be won. read more
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.
The following letter was sent to The New York Times by Tariq Ali, Oliver Stone and Mark Weisbrot in response to a grossly distorted account of their new film ‘South of the Border‘by Larry Rohter, a one time backer of the 2002 coup attempt.
Larry Rohter attacks our film, “South of the Border,” for “mistakes, misstatements and missing details.” But a close examination of the details reveals that the mistakes, misstatements, and missing details are his own, and that the film is factually accurate. We will document this for each one of his attacks. We then show that there is evidence of animus and conflict of interest, in his attempt to discredit the film. Finally, we ask that you consider the many factual errors in Rohter’s attacks, outlined below, and the pervasive evidence of animus and conflict of interest in his attempt to discredit the film; and we ask that The New York Times publish a full correction for these numerous mistakes.
1) Accusing the film of “misinformation,” Rohter writes that “A flight from Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon, not the Andes. . .” But the narration does not say that the flight is “mostly” over the Andes, just that it flies over the Andes, which is true. (Source: Google Earth).
2) Also in the category of “misinformation,” Rohter writes “the United States does not ‘import more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation,’ a distinction that has belonged to Saudi Arabia during the period 2004-10.”
The quote cited by Rohter here was spoken in the film by an oil industry analyst, Phil Flynn, who appears for about 30 seconds in a clip from U.S. broadcast TV. It turns out that Rohter is mistaken, and Flynn is correct. Flynn is speaking in April 2002 (which is clear in the film), so it is wrong for Rohter to cite data from 2004-2010. If we look at data from 1997-2001, which is the relevant data for Flynn’s comment, Flynn is correct. Venezuela leads all OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, for oil imports in the U.S. over this period. (Source: US Energy Information Agency for Venezuela and Saudi Arabia) read more