Chile: NO

(2012, dir: Pablo Larraín; language: Spanish; France and US co-production)

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NO is a drama based on the TV campaigns in the lead-up to the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that ultimately ousted dictator Pinochet from power. In the film’s depiction of events, after 15 years of rule by military junta Pinochet’s government responds to international pressure for democratisation by declaring a national referendum: should Pinochet remain leader for another 8 years – YES or NO? (The No vote meaning a subsequent democratic election of a president and government). In an attempt to make the referendum look fair, for one month prior to the vote 15 minutes of air-time each is allotted to both the YES- and NO-campaigns. The remaining air-time remains tightly controlled by the junta government. What initially seems like a safe bet for the regime turns out to be their undoing as the innovative NO-campaign convinces a fearful and sceptical constituency to evict Pinochet, a decision that he ultimately abides by. The film follows the young and talented advertising executive René Saavedra (played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), son of a socialist opponent of Pinochet’s regime and formerly exiled to Mexico. Head-hunted by one of his dad’s old friends, René is initially not keen to get involved in something as political as the NO-campaign, but eventually agrees to coordinate it. This decision pits him against his Pinochet-lackey boss, and puts both René and his family in the firing line.

I chose this film because it was well-reviewed and won screeds of awards, and it being an election year in both my countries of citizenship the political theme seemed topical. The subject-matter of the film was certainly thought-provoking, especially the conflict between René and some of the other NO-campaign  producers over the campaign strategy. Many of the NO-campaigners suspect that the vote will be rigged in Pinochet’s favour, but want to use the their allotted time to air the truth about the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. Others, such as René’s ex-spouse Veronica (Antonia Zegers), argue that running a serious campaign is tantamount to collaboration with the dictatorship in that it lends credibility to the facade of democracy Pinochet wants to show internationally. Once on board, René pragmatically draws on his commercial advertising experience and opts for a cheesy campaign with a catchy pop jingle and a rainbow motif that promises a brighter future for Chile without Pinochet. This offends many of the NO-campaigners, who want to focus on exposing the suffering, torture and disappearances carried out by Pinochet’s junta. And intuitively, it is offensive to further suppress their suffering in favour of a superficial jingle, but what NO shows is that vague hope sells better than concrete outrage. This is an issue well worth pondering for contemporary activists, given the challenges of mobilising people today. When the sheer amount and scale of oppression that people face on a daily basis becomes too great, it can appear so overwhelming that escapism and the dream of a better future becomes more attractive than dealing with current problems. But whether or not the tactics of the NO-campaign are a good solution to this challenge raises questions about means and ends that, in my view, are not easily answered (and which caused a lot of debate around the real life NO-campaign).

While addressing both an interesting issue and an important event in South American history, the film’s execution left me in two minds regarding what conclusions the film was trying to push me to. However, it must first be said that one of the highlights of the film was its slick and detailed production design. The shifts between the newly shot footage and the wealth of archival material were seamless, an effect aided by the decision to shoot on U-matic film of the type commonly used in that period. The 80s vibe was well-supported by close attention to period details with some fun set-pieces such as René’s experiments with the latest addition to the kitchen – a microwave. His colourful jumpers were also excellent. I was, however, a little bit less convinced by the character’s choice of skateboard as a form of transport. Did 30-somethings really skateboard in the 80s?

Indeed, the microwave and skateboard were given enough focus in the film that they took on symbolic value for me: the microwave connoting innovation and the future; the skateboard perhaps connoting a youthful freedom, particularly at the end after Pinochet’s fall, where the final images of the film are René skateboarding through the city. Big Daddy is overthrown, and the children are free. However, while promising, these symbols seem to stop at that promise, not actually delivering on a better future. Where is René skateboarding to? What will Chile actually do now that Big Daddy Pinochet is gone? What kind of future does the microwave enable?

Herein lies what I see as one of the film’s more interesting aspects, although I’m not sure it was intended that way; while the NO-campaign focussed on the promise of a better future, the vision of that future is utterly superficial (comparisons to Obama’s “Yes We Can” have been made, and are not un-warrented). Of course, the argument could be made that any future without Pinochet would be a better one, which indeed was what the other producers of the NO-campaign were aiming at with their desire to focus on the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. But René’s campaign was selling a shiny neo-liberal dream of freedom exercised through consumption, with a distinctly American (US) flavour. As Veronica points out at one point, the tall blond picknickers in the No-campaign’s video are a fantasy that have little to do with real Chileans. Should we as viewers interpret the campaign as a success, or as a selling-out?

The end of the film seems to try to have it both ways. When the NO-campaign has achieved its end and the population is rejoicing, René isn’t. He wanders off, feeling… something. Gael García Bernal’s liquid eyes are welling with emptiness. Is he worried about the future, that the dream he promised will be difficult to deliver, or not so appealing in reality? Or is he simply professionally disappointed that the campaign is over already? And while René’s motivations (merely professional, or political?) and the juxtaposition between the urgent needs of Chileans and the cheesy American dream that the NO-campaign was selling were certainly interesting, I kept feeling that the film was trying to nudge me out of a complex analysis and into firmly agreeing with René’s position. It left me uneasy – what story was the film trying to tell? It definitely felt like a complex and momentous instance of popular resistance was being shoved into a individualistic underdog good-guy versus big-bad bad-guys framework. And I wasn’t entirely sure that I accepted René Saavedra as a good guy.

In fact, I found myself agreeing more with one of the socialist detractors of René’s campaign, when he argued heatedly that “democracy is not a product”. The message of NO seems to be that actually, yes it is. What I can’t make up my mind about is whether or not the film is telling us that this is a good thing. To be clear, while getting rid of Pinochet is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, is the film’s philosophy that politics can be reduced to marketing also something worth celebrating? Ultimately the film felt more Mad Men than Wag the Dog; more of a celebration of marketing men and their craft than a warning about the power these people have over politics, and hence, our lives.

Reading a few reports on reactions from Chile, it seems like the film has prompted similar reactions locally. Larry Rother in the New York Times writes:

“In some quarters of both the political and the artistic worlds, Mr. Larraín, 36, is suspected of disguising himself as an admirer of the No campaign to advance a right-wing agenda that focuses on a heroic outsider instead of collective action by the center and left. ‘Here Larraín shows his more conservative profile,’ Matías Sánchez wrote in the magazine El Ciudadano. The film, he added, reflects ‘the crisis of identity of Pablo Larraín himself, who debates between advertising and film, between right and left, between being an aristocrat in Chile and a political filmmaker abroad.'”

Furthermore, there have been many reactions to the film’s fictionalised depiction of events, particularly the casting the creator of the NO-campaign as a politically apathetic outsider (rather than a politically organised duo who created the campaign through a process of focus groups), and giving too much credit to the media campaign and ignoring the contributions of activists in mobilising the NO-vote. As Genaro Arriagada, director of the NO-campaign says to the New York Times:

 “The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality… The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”

While fabrications are often unavoidable in fictionalised films about historical events, the use of documentary footage in the film, and the lack of detailed knowledge on the part of many international viewers (including myself), can lull foreign audiences into accepting NO‘s version of events. Ironically, the strongest parts of the film for me were the archival segments, prompting the question – why not just make a documentary? Why simplify and depoliticise the anti-Pinochet struggle, remove a lot of the key components of the NO-campaign, and insert “a Mexican advertising guy [on a] skateboard”? Perhaps the accusations about the director’s right-wing agenda or personal ambiguity hold some answers.

On a final note, I have to say that the only character in the film that really got me excited was Veronica. Although given very little screen time, she was the closest representative of the revolutionary determination that was required en mass to oust Pinochet in reality. A fearless, blunt and self-possessed person, I loved how she somehow always managed to be at the centre of any fight with the authorities. Her being the sole female character in the film undoubtedly also contributed to my affection for the character – how refreshing to see the dad left at home to look after the kid while the mother is off being a revolutionary! More Veronicas please, and less skateboarding advertising execs, no matter how groovy their jumpers.

As for what I learned about Chile: well, a smattering about the torture and disappearances and economic hardship under Pinochet; a glimpse of how things might not have been ideal under the country’s communist past; less about the Chilean left’s history than I had hoped; a lot about the historic NO-campaign, although not all of it historically accurate; and a local example of a universal conflict over representations of the past.

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