No poster

This autumn 40 years will have passed since that first, bloody September 11 when the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile.  That event marked the beginning of a regime that committed horrific human rights abuses for 17 years, during which an estimated 3000 people were killed or disappeared by the military régime, and some 28,000 people were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

One Chilean film maker’s entire body of work as a film maker has been an act of remembrance for those years: Patricio Guzman, whose Nostalgia for the Light was one of the great films of 2012.  Last night I went along to FACT in Liverpool for a special Amnesty International screening of No, the latest film from Pablo Larrain, another Chilean director whose three most recent films also constitute a meditation on the dark years of Pinochet.  The film was introduced by a lecturer from Sheffield University, a Chilean who arrived in this country 39 years ago, exiled as a refugee having endured a year in one of Pinochet’s concentration camps.  I remember the time so well when those exiles and escapees began arriving in Liverpool.

No is about the moment when, in 1988, Pinochet was forced by growing internal and international pressure to hold a referendum  to decide whether or not he should stay in power for another eight years. The result, in a country frozen by fear, seemed like a foregone conclusion. But, by the late 1980s, as a result of economic collapse and mass civil resistance, the military regime launched a programme of market-oriented reforms, with the aim of edging Chile towards a more open economy and increased  foreign investment.  In this climate, strange new visions appeared – microwave ovens, pop videos, U.S.-style soap operas and slick TV adverts – and to sell those visions, a new breed of advertising executive appeared.

The film recounts what followed when the coalition of 16 political parties in opposition to the dictatorship approached a brash young advertising executive, René Saavedra,  asking him to devise their campaign to get people to vote No.  Fifteen minutes of daily television airtime was allocated to the regime in the weeks leading up to the vote, another 15 per day to its opponents (though last thing at night).  Saavedra is a ‘closer’, a kind of character familiar from Mad Men; his job is to come up with bright ideas and to seduce clients with soft soap at campaign presentations. Whether it’s a new soft drink, a microwave oven or selling the idea of a democratic future for his country: it all boils down to the same thing for Saavedra.  René opens his pitch in the same way, explaining that it is ‘in line with the current social context’ and that ‘today, Chile thinks of its future’.

Yet Saavedra is the son of a dissident, and has himself spent some time in exile before returning to Chile to keep his head down while becoming increasingly successful in the slick and indifferent world of advertising.  It may be that director Pablo Larraín was drawn to such a character – he was born in 1976, three years after Allende was overthrown, and was only twelve at the time of the referendum. He was brought up in an affluent household where the assumption was that ‘Pinochet was the right man for the country because we were economically growing’.

One of the great achievements of Larraín’s film is that, gently and non-judgementally, it allows draws us into the mindsets of the time – on all sides.  The No campaign group who seek Saavedra’s help are drawn from 16 opposition parties, riven by internal disagreements, but united in wanting to denounce murder, torture, exile and poverty. So they are horrified when he insists that focussing on the country’s misery ‘won’t sell’ the product. Slowly he convinces them that his campaign tactics, employing the frivolous tools of advertising – jingles, song-and-dance numbers, comedy – can succeed in challenging a climate of ‘learned hopelessness’ and overthrow a dictator.

No still

Saavedra gets it in the neck, too, from other sources: his ex-wife is a political activist and, like many on the left at the time starts out rejecting any notion of participating in Pinochet’s plebiscite, seeing it as a trap.  Meanwhile his boss at the ad agency is masterminding the Yes campaign, tries to bribe him with the offer of a partnership and, when that fails, steals tapes of the next night’s No campaign broadcast to give Pinochet’s men advance warning of their message.

No is not beautiful to look at: at first I thought Amnesty must have got hold of a dodgy copy of the film, because it felt like watching a videotape you’d recorded off the TV back in the 80s.  In fact, in order to give the film an authentic feel, Larraín shot it with a pair of rebuilt U-matic video cameras on low definition tape – the sort of stuff which was widely used by television crews in  the 1980s.  This also allows Larrain to integrate his new material seamlessly with 1980s footage of pro-democracy demonstrations, police repression, and clips from the real No and Yes campaigns. 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.

The ad-man’s strategy succeeds, and Pinochet is defeated by a campaign that packaged resistance into commercials featuring jokes, jingles, a rainbow graphic and lots of dancing, smiling people: the nightmare legacy of the coup vanquished by a brilliant coup de théâtre. The No campaign won, capturing 55 percent of the vote, and Pinochet was ousted (although he remained president until free elections were held the following year).

‘No’ star Gael García Bernal with the film’s director Pablo Larraín

In an interview, Larraín pointed up the irony of the story: ‘Pinochet imposed a capitalist society in Chile: our character grabbed the tools of capitalism that Pinochet had provided – advertising – to throw him out’. And despite the film’s humour and its triumphant and joyful conclusion, the happy ending is not unconditional. Saavedra’s ambiguous response to the victory, and his return to work with his boss at the ad agency, are a reminder that Chile’s problems – the economic, social and cultural consequences of Pinochet’s rule – did not end overnight (and, indeed, at last night’s screening there was an Amnesty petition calling for an end to the impunity granted to the perpetrators of brutal human rights violations during the Pinochet years).

There is ambivalence, too, in the fact that the historical moment the film captures is just when advertising techniques (including the use of focus groups which we also in the film) came to be widely used in political campaigns.  There’s ambiguity in the film’s portrayal of the hardnosed cynicism in the adman’s tactic of selling the idea of happiness to the voters, just as if it were a soft drink called Free. In the closing scene we see Saavedra pitching ads to promote the state TV channel’s new soap opera using the same words he used to pitch the No campaign – it’s ‘in line with the current social context’ and ‘today, Chile thinks of its future’.  The final words we hear are those of one of the ‘Beautiful and Bold women’ cavorting on top of a skyscraper: ‘My name is Kiki Blanche.  I have 5 children, I own a hair salon, and I was a dancer at the Bim Bam Boum’.

The singer Victor Jara had his guitarist’s hands smashed before being murdered in Santiago’s sports stadium.  Adrian Mitchell celebrated him in verse:

Victor Jara of Chile
Lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor Jara was a peasant
He worked from a few years old
He sat upon his father’s plough
And watched the earth unfold
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He grew up to be a fighter
Against the people’s wrongs
He listened to their grief and joy
And turned them into songs
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He sang about the copper miners
And those who worked the land
He sang about the factory workers
And they knew he was their man
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He campaigned for Allende
Working night and day
He sang “Take hold of your brothers hand
You know the future begins today”
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Then the generals seized Chile
They arrested Victor then
They caged him in a stadium
With five-thousand frightened men
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor stood in the stadium
His voice was brave and strong
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

They broke the bones in both his hands
They beat him on the head
They tore him with electric shocks
And then they shot him dead
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

See also


2 thoughts on “No? Oh Yes We Can!

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