US Filmmaker Oliver Stone In Focus

Legendary American filmmaker Oliver Stone spoke in Phnom Penh yesterday, decrying the “beast of fear” in current politics and urging students “to read history because without memory there is only the dictatorship of the now.” The three-time Oscar winner, who gained fame with movies like “Platoon” and “JFK,” was on the second and final day of a visit to Cambodia that included a meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Mr Stone recalled during a speech yesterday that he first came to Phnom Penh for a weekend getaway in 1965, when he was teaching English in what was then South Vietnam. A few years later he enlisted for combat duty as an infantryman in Vietnam, and he went on to make a trilogy of movies that deal with different aspects of the war.

“For some reason I have been brought to Southeast Asia by my own destiny when I was a young man, and it changed my life. So I do have some strange feeling that I am linked in some way to this region,” Mr Stone said at the beginning of his roughly 23-minute speech, which was part of the Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace program, a lecture series organized by the International Peace Foundation.

Mr Stone, a provocateur in the film industry who has come under criticism for promoting conspiracy theories, gave a quick recap of 20th century history during yesterday’s talk, explaining how European imperialism spectacularly imploded in two devastating world wars, and how the US filled the vacuum.

“America essentially became the new empire, the one that had replaced the British empire,” he said.

He then spoke of the paranoia of the Cold War years and the American triumphalism that followed. Mr Stone, a practicing Buddhist, peppered the talk with “Know Thyself”-like exhortations.

“I’m not the first one to say peace can only begin once you have come to grips with your own aggressiveness,” he told the crowd of more than 300.

He urged the students to educate themselves, and thus to erect a bulwark against fear.

“Your mind is the most important tool you have. It’s your weapon, your rifle.”

The acclaimed director also gave advice of a more (or maybe less) practical sort.

“Don’t fall in love right away,” said Mr Stone, who has in the past told reporters that he likes to party, and who has been detained a few times in the US in connection with drug possession charges.

“Don’t get married,” he continued as the audience broke into laughter. “Get a backpack, a ticket to nowhere, take a year off, travel you’re ass off, burn everything you can. Listen to the wind.”

Mr Stone may have listened to the wind when he was young, but he has kept himself busy in the subsequent years, writing or directing-often writing and directing-more than 20 movies, from 1987’s “Wall Street,” about the greed driving a powerful segment of America, to 2006’s “World Trade Center,” a tribute to heroism.

In the last seven years, Mr Stone had made his first documentaries, including two on Fidel Castro, the longtime leader of Cuba, and a third on Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Mr Stone has said he admires both leaders for standing up to the US, but that doesn’t mean he lets them get away with anything. In “Looking for Fidel,” in which Mr Stone sits down for an interview with Mr Castro, the director goes over an Amnesty International report that details rights abuses in Cuba.

If Mr Stone did anything similar during his meeting with Mr Hun Sen, he wasn’t willing to discuss it during an interview yesterday before his speech.

“Hun Sen’s quite a fighter, I have to admit,” Mr Stone said in an office off the lobby of the Hotel Cambodiana. “I knew of him 20 years ago when I was here…. You know, I liked his guts, his scrappiness. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but he did seem to mold this country together at a time when it needed a strong leader.

“Sometimes a leader stays too long,” he added. Then he said: “I can’t speak for [Mr Hun Sen], because I don’t know the internal situation. But I think Cambodia is reaching a place of relative prosperity in the Southeast Asian world.”

He described the prime minister as very different from the two South American leaders he made documentaries about.

“The Asian tradition is different,” he explained. “It’s more like talking to a monarch than it is like talking to Castro or Chavez.”

Mr Stone, who is in his early 60s, was born in New York to a Jewish father who was a stockbroker and a Roman Catholic mother from France. Like former US president George W Bush, he went to Yale, but he dropped out and entered the US Army.

“At that time in my life I had been brainwashed by the system,” he said in yesterday’s interview. Mr Stone, who has a big frame, meaty features and dark black eyebrows, seemed to grow more focused with each question.

“I believed in the war, I believed in fighting communism,” he explained. “People don’t remember in your generation. It’s a shame. That’s why you need the old guys like me around to keep saying don’t don’t don’t. You got to be the cranks. You say don’t fight, don’t got to war unless it’s really necessary.”

After receiving two medals and being wounded in action in Vietnam, Mr Stone became disillusioned with the war, he said yesterday. He went on to make three Vietnam War movies.

The first, “Platoon,” which came out in 1986 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is a semi-autobiographical, realistic account of a soldier who volunteers for the war.

The second, “Born on the Fourth of July,” which also won an Academy Award, came out in 1989 and starred Tom Cruise. It is the true story of anti-war activist Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mr Stone. Mr Kovic volunteered for the war, was paralyzed in combat and eventually became an active opponent of the war. (Oliver Stone’s third Academy Award was for writing the screenplay of “Midnight Express.”)

The last movie in Mr Stone’s Vietnam trilogy is 1993’s “Heaven and Earth,” a tale of a Vietnamese woman who survives the war and moves to America. It is based on two autobiographical books.

“It’s just one of my favorites,” Mr Stone said of the movie, which is also one of his lesser known. “It was just an attempt to understand the Vietnamese side.”

There’s a chance Mr Stone could make another movie dealing with Vietnam. He almost began shooting “Pinkville” in Thailand in 2007, about the infamous My Lai massacre, but the financial backing fell through.

“Hopefully we might come back alive,” he said of the project. “Pinkville” would deal with both the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians by a unit of the US army and the subsequent investigation and cover-up, he explained.

Mr Stone is currently finishing a sequel to “Wall Street” called “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” which is scheduled to be released this year. He is also working on a 10-hour documentary for US TV called “The Secret History of the United States.”

“We are seeking to understand the patterns that have made the country [the US] what it is today: a national security state,” he said of the documentary during yesterday’s talk. “I live in a national security state, most of us in the world do in some form or another.”

In a recent article in The Guardian, Mr Stone is described as having startled a gathering of TV critics in California when he discussed the 10-hour documentary, which covers the history of the 20th century.

“Hitler is an easy scapegoat through history and it’s been used cheaply,” he is quoted as saying.

Asked about this in yesterday’s interview, he said that Hitler was a “monster,” but that the documentary will seek to show that he is a product of history.

“Hitler was a monster, no question, he was sick and crazy, but he didn’t do it alone,” he said.

He explained that he is fighting against the dualism-good versus evil-expounded by former US President George W Bush.

“Dualism is not a philosophy of life that works,” he said. “[Former US President George W Bush] said we’re going to fight a war to wipe out evil. You tell me how that works?”

Despite his dislike of Mr Bush, Mr Stone’s 2008 biopic on the two-term president, “W,” presents a balanced picture that has been attacked from both the left and right. Mr Stone has dealt with the lives of a few presidents on film. He also made the movie “Nixon,” on the downfall of former US president Richard Nixon. But he said he’s not interested in a film on current US President Barack Obama- at least not right now.

“It’s a wonderful story but it should be done by the right person,” said Mr Stone, who explained that he was disappointed with Mr Obama’s presidency, but glad Senator John McCain, a candidate in the 2008 election, isn’t in the White house.

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