VENICE (Reuters) - Director Oliver Stone says the U.S. media and government have demonized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leftist South American leaders, and argues in a new film that they were right to stand up to Washington.
Chavez, who landed in Venice for the film's premiere, has earned a reputation for his outspoken criticism of U.S. policy, and in Stone's "South of the Border" he is sympathetically portrayed as a hero of the people who refuses to be bullied.
Originally an attempt to redress what Stone saw as unfair treatment of Chavez by TV networks and newspapers, the documentary turned into a bigger project and included interviews not only with him but with six other presidents in the region.
"I think the movie, if you've seen it, shows very clearly the level of stupidity in the kind of broad statements that are made about Mr. Chavez," Stone told reporters at the Venice film festival.
"But I didn't want to make a movie only about the American media's attacks. I felt that that was too small for what this man is about. This man is a big phenomenon.
"So we traveled in a road trip kind of movie to visit these other presidents and we saw the positive side of what is going on, the sweeping change in this region. It's a very important historical phenomenon that is ... ignored in America."
Chavez, surrounded by bodyguards, strolled with Stone on the Lido red carpet, posing for pictures and signing autographs like a movie star before receiving a standing ovation at the premiere on Monday.
"What's happening in Latin America is like a Renaissance," the Venezuelan leader told reporters.
South of the Border combines clips of U.S. broadcasters and commentators describing Chavez, one of them comparing him to Hitler, with interviews and news footage of economic upheaval across South America during the last decade.
Stone points the finger of blame at the International Monetary Fund, which he says imposed "neo-liberal," U.S.-led conditions in return for loans, and hails today's leaders for wresting back control of their resources.
Chavez, and other leaders including Bolivia's Evo Morales and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, criticize the fund, and voice support for greater regional cooperation.
"Each one of these countries ... is in for a struggle," Stone said. "The idea that Chavez has expressed ... is 'Let's unify, let's stay together here because we are up against a giant', not only the U.S. government giant but against corporations that are multinational and very strong."
Asked about anti-Chavez demonstrations over the weekend in Caracas involving thousands of people, Stone replied:
"Chavez continues to remain very popular in Venezuela and he keeps getting elected. Without doubt social improvement has been extreme in Venezuela. There are many problems still but it's a wonderful change that's occurred since 2000."
South of the Border looks like a movie made in a hurry, with soundmen and cameramen often in shot.
It includes amusing scenes as when Chavez is riding around his childhood yard on a bicycle when it buckles underneath him, and Kirchner complaining as she waits for someone to bring her a photograph: "Men can be slow. My god!"
Stone said he had been in talks with Iran to make a documentary about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but that scheduling on both sides had prevented it.
"I was very interested because I thought we were going to go to war in Iran," he said. "If we had been more successful in Iraq, I have no doubts that we would have been more involved in the Iranian situation now."
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; editing by Paul Casciato