Stephen Applebaum explains how a team of advertisers helped bring down the Chilean dictator
‘WITHOUT memory you are dead. You are plastic,” says the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain. “If you don’t have memory on your side, you tend to make the same mistakes again and again. So it’s good to rethink a few things.”
Larrain has been doing this ever since his dark and troubling debut feature, Tony Manero, used a psychopathic John Travolta obsessive as a metaphor for the violence perpetrated by General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military junta. He returned to the subject in his second film, Post-Mortem, set during the bloody coup that brought Pinochet to power in 1973. Some in Chile wondered why Larrain couldn’t let the past lie. “They said, ‘Why don’t you make a surfing film or whatever?’ But I wanted to do it because I still didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand it.”
Born in 1976, Larrain was too young to experience the full horror first hand; however, it haunts his generation “like a big ghost”, he told me after the world premiere of Post-Mortem in 2010. “Pinochet died [in 2006] with $30 million and free. We still have 3000 people disappeared. We have nobody in jail. If somebody thinks it’s enough, I would say, ‘I don’t agree.’”
A third film, No, based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta, was already at the writing stage. “It’s going to be a trilogy and that’s it,” he laughed. “I swear I will go and do something else.”
No now arrives in the UK already having made history by becoming the first production from Chile to be nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. Part of the reason, possibly, is that in dramatising the story of how a group of television advertising men helped to oust Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite that was supposed to extend the dictator’s rule, Larrain has fashioned his most mainstream movie to date. Where Tony Manero and Post-Mortem were dark, twisted and oblique, with deranged, opaque protagonists, No is instantly accessible and relatively light in tone. The difference was intentional, he says.
“My previous films were made under my imagination; I created those situations in the real context of what happened in my country. This tells a real story about a real campaign with real people that did something that changed the history of my country. So we had to tell it in a proper way in order to deliver it to a wide audience. Not because we wanted to make it wider. We had to.”
The central irony of No is that Pinochet was defeated by Mad Men using advertising to sell the idea of l’alegria, or happiness, to the masses as an alternative to the dictator’s repressive rule, in the same way that they would sell fizzy pop, using humour, music, and joy.
“The advertising logic comes from capitalism,” says Larrain. “And that capitalism is a model that Pinochet imposed. So he created the tools that pulled him out. It’s like we say in Spanish: you create your own enemy.”
Not everyone believed that the “No” campaign would be successful. Pinochet controlled everything, including the media. The opposition’s TV broadcasts (the “Yes” and “No” campaigns were given 15 minutes airtime a day each for a month) would be censored, they thought; the vote would be rigged, the election a sham. After all, who’d ever heard of a dictator being voted off the stage democratically? They “usually die in power, fat, rich and shooting people”, says Larrain.
Chile hadn’t gone to the polls since the Socialist Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, and people feared reprisals. To overcome this, the architects of the “No” campaign “created an environment where you could express yourself”, says Larrain.
“They let the people know that they can still think freely. They said, ‘Don’t be afraid. When you vote, vote for what you think is really better. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.’ We’d had 15 years where freedom was a metaphor. That is why we show the vote in the film.”
The margin of victory was slim, but it was enough to rid Chile of Pinochet. The “No” campaign had done its work simply by promoting an abstract idea: happiness.
In the film, Mexican star Gael García Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an amalgam of several real people involved with the operation. Some people found the campaign trivial, Bernal says, while others thought it was “disrespectful to the pain that many people carried”. Moreover, in an echo of the Arab Spring, it never considered what would come next.
“Ultimately it was a partial win because the economic system, the privileges, stayed kind of the same,” claims Bernal. “Chile is a country that is doing well economically and yet all of Latin America has free education, except Chile. So there are contradictions that are still there and still hurtful.”
The film is rife with ambiguity and ambivalence, ending on a sobering note of reality rather than unalloyed optimism. Its very make up, too, is ambiguous, comprising new and old footage blended to perfection by shooting with actual U-matic cameras from the period.
Not many survive other than as museum or art pieces, but a global hunt turned up 20 which a company in Hollywood was able to cannibalise into four working units. “They were like people,” says Larrain. “They were all different and they would get tired. So we had to use one and then another day another one, because they wouldn’t be in good shape.” The results were so authentic, Larrain claims, that he couldn’t always distinguish between the archive footage and new material when they were assembling the edit. “When we had that confusion, I said, ‘We got it!’”
Whether he also gets the Oscar will be revealed on 24 February.
• No is in cinemas from 8 February.