No – A Film about the End of the Pinochet Regime by Angela Caldin

The No Campaign against Pinochet

No, a film starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Pablo Larraín, is an exhilarating story about the seemingly unattainable victory of the political underdogs in Chile in 1988, who, it is suggested, managed to topple General Augusto Pinochet from power, by virtue of a TV election campaign limited to 15 minutes of air time a day, and by that campaign alone.

A Television Advertising Campaign

The film documents how pressure was put on Pinochet by the US to hold a referendum which it was assumed would give him another eight year mandate: a bizarre twist since the US is widely thought to have put him in power as a dictator in the first place. The numerous opposition parties came together to pool their resources for the 15 minutes of television time each evening for about a month, that each side was given to promote its cause. The film’s fictitious hero is René Saavedra, a young, hotshot, skateboarding advertising executive, who is recruited to run the No campaign, while his boss is a senior adviser to the Pinochet regime. There is constant tension between the two of them, mixed with grudging mutual respect. Saavedra’s vision for the advertising campaign is to concentrate on the bright, happy future which would await a Chile free of Pinochet. He devises a logo with a rainbow and commissions a catchy jingle which promises that happiness is coming. He refuses to be budged from his vision in spite of the objections of those who want the torture, violence and disappearances of the last 15 years to be portrayed and condemned. His vision is to be completely positive and to look forwards, never back. As the No campaign gains ground, threats begin against those involved: Saavedra has menacing slogans daubed on his house and car, sinister men wait outside his gate, a tank turns up at one point and his son’s life is threatened. At a well-attended No rally, the army turns out and the violence that has been simmering under the surface breaks through. In spite of all the efforts to sabotage it, the successful No campaign continues and when it comes to the vote, wins by 55%. One of the final scenes of the film shows the actual news reel footage of Pinochet relinquishing power while his successor puts on the presidential sash.

Reality or Fiction?

It’s a great story, and an inspiring story, which shows the overthrow of a ruthless dictator against all the odds. But the implication is that the single minded vision of one man achieved the impossible: that by creating an advertising campaign which caught the imagination of many, he brought about a sea change in public opinion. In fact, in Chile, the film has had a mixed reception. The acknowledged architects of the No campaign say it is ridiculously simplistic to imply that this is how victory was won, with no credit given to the crucial role that a grass-roots voter registration effort played in getting out the No vote. “The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” says Genaro Arriagada, director of the No campaign, adding “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 advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.” The many commentaries that have been written on the plebiscite over the last 25 years all credit the anti-Pinochet forces’ grass-roots effort to register 7.5 million Chileans as pivotal to their success at the polls.  Voters had to be painstakingly educated and informed about participating in a process that was perceived by many as not legitimate. They had to be persuaded to take the referendum seriously when many were convinced that the Pinochet side would engage in fraud, would use force, would harass people, and would never allow themselves to lose. We have a brief glimpse of this in the film when Saavedra’s estranged wife is against the referendum and condemns his programmes as superficial schmaltz which makes no mention of those heroes tortured and killed by the military regime.

Many people will go to this film and come away with the idea that a simple sustained TV presentation of a utopian vision was enough to topple Pinochet. The director has said “I just make movies; I’m not the official version of anything. I’m just an artist who does what he wants, what feels best”. He described No as a pastiche with “a strange balance between documentary and fiction,” adding that “the way things happen in the movie is not exactly the way they were, but the facts are the same.” The issue is further blurred by Larraín’s use of documentary footage, shot in 1988, which he estimated amounts to about 30% of the film. The rest of No, the fictional component, was shot in the same style to give the film a uniform, coherent look, thus merging reality and fiction.

Bravery Shines Through

What are we to make of it? How can we distinguish reality from invention especially when a documentary style is used throughout? The reality is that, against all the odds, Pinochet was deposed. People took huge personal risks to secure his downfall, as the air of menace which pervades much of the film attests. The film is not accurate as to the elements that led to the No campaign’s success, though the TV broadcasts no doubt had considerable effect. But it appears to be an accurate picture of life under a brutal dictatorship and of how such dictatorships work. It is also an exciting and uplifting tribute to the bravery, intelligence and resilience of those who were unafraid to stand up to a remorseless and unjust tyranny and to win.

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