From the radical montage films of the immediate post-revolutionary Soviet era, through the Popular Front politics of Italian neo-realism and the youthful street grammar of the various 1960s New Wave cinemas in France, Brazil and Czechoslovakia, right up to today's guerrilla-video documentary movement in China, filmmakers have seen two things reflected in their viewfinders — the events of their time, and their own anxious eyeballs. All have had to ask themselves the same question: Can media change the world?
Seldom does history provide a clear answer. But in the true events dramatized in the new Chilean film No, we see an unmistakable example of a team of creative individuals whose collective effort altered the destiny of the nation. In a somewhat ironic twist, many of the key personnel involved weren't artists in the conventional sense. They were advertising agents, called upon to sell Happiness and Democracy the way one would market a deodorant.
No is the story of the 1988 plebiscite that the Chilean government was forced to call to legitimize the 15-year-old military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet and his right-wing cronies seized power in the U.S.-backed 1973 coup that overthrew democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende. The vote would be a simple yes-or-no referendum, with Chileans either backing Pinochet or choosing to oust him in favor of a candidate to be decided later. As part of the imposed process, both sides were allotted 15 minutes of TV airtime each night for a month leading up to the vote.
Certain things are vital to understand about Pinochet's regime. All political parties were banned or suspended, the left-leaning parties made explicitly illegal. What's more, political dissenters were arrested without due process, tortured, beaten in the streets, or simply "disappeared." So not only did the left think the plebiscite was rigged; they wondered whether it was a trick (a la Mao's "hundred flowers in bloom") to flush out and destroy the opposition. In any case, the consensus formed that, since "NO" was a clear loser, they might as well use the 15 minutes (in the middle of the night!) to expose Pinochet's crimes.
Enter René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a hotshot ad exec first seen pitching a spot for a soda pop called "Free." After watching the dour stats-and-brutality infomercial the NO campaign has worked up, he lets them have it. "This won't sell," he says. "It's too negative." The humorless Amy Goodman types in the room walk out in protest — that's what getting beaten and watching your comrades killed will do to your sense of play. But with the help of an activist filmmaker (Néstor Cantillana) and a sympathetic Democratic Socialist leader (Luis Gnecco), René begins fashioning "NO" into a concept — a logo (with a rainbow, signifying the various parties), a jingle ("Chile, happiness is coming!"), and a set of sturdy talking points within which bolder ideas can be framed.
No is a brilliant film on multiple levels. For one thing, it raises questions of political rhetoric, audience and context. As Americans, we gripe about the political process being handed over to image manipulators, with pols being urged to "stay on message." But what does it mean in a situation where one side has dominated the conversation for years, through both media control and physical threat? (The NOs recognize that their first challenge is making Chileans feel that going to the polls at all is safe, and then not futile.) The director, Pablo Larraín, has also constructed No as a film whose very form interrogates the subject matter at hand. He shot the film on U-Matic, a defunct video format used in TV broadcasting in the late '80s. So the archival material (the "NO" ads, which are both hilarious and poignant) blends seamlessly with the film's original footage; everything is equally blurry and "distant." (U-Matic also has a tendency to produce flares and hot spots, so many otherwise average shots end up producing prismatic rainbows, covertly emphasizing the "NO" logo's message.)
But even beyond this, Larraín's film, like the campaign, chooses direct communication to perform a particular job. His first two films were also dark comedies about the difficult years of the Pinochet regime; I especially recommend Tony Manero, a jet-black satire about a pro-Pinochet fascist (Alfredo Castro, also in No) who is obsessed with impersonating the protagonist from Saturday Night Fever. Manero is a challenging, idiosyncratic allegory, but No is in a different league, partly because it more closely reflects the ways in which Chile's recent history is not some isolated event. Rather, both the plebiscite and the ad campaign are key moments in the contemporary state of global affairs, of how we got to where we are now. The events No depicts are radical in every way — even in the fact that Pinochet's generals accepted the results, rather than rolling out the tanks. Could this happen again, or are we living in times too adamantly defined by Sí?