Thursday, April 18, 2013

"NO" (2012)

No is a Chilean film about the beginning of the end of the Pinochet regime (spoiler). Responding to international pressure, the evil general called a referendum to give himself another eight years of dictatorial rule; if he loses the vote, he will have to hand over power to an elected successor. Dreamy Gael Garcia Bernal plays René, a former exile now working in advertising who finds himself assisting the "No" campaign prepare material for their daily fifteen minute TV slot. He lures the No campaign away from a focus on serious politics and depressing things like Pinochet's human rights abuses, instead bringing slick and aspirational advertising tricks into play.

As you probably know, General Pinochet is no longer in charge of Chile, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the No side win the election. The film still manages to extract a lot of tension from the campaign, putting us in the shoes of the people campaigning against the dictatorship, for whom victory was not a foregone conclusion. Right to the end it seemed likely that Pinochet would either win the election fairly, rig a victory, or simply negate the result. Late in the film, when the votes are being counted, there is a sudden power cut, and we feel the fear of the protagonists that they are about to be carted off to one of Pinochet's torture centres. But then the lights come back on and we see footage of Chilean generals heading to Pinochet's palace to tell him to admit defeat.

Spin doctors, image consultants and people from the world of advertising are usually seen as a bunch of style-over-substance wankers, people who are largely responsible for the superficial and shallow nature of the world we live in and the facile nature of political discussion. In No, however, the advertising man is the hero who brings down the dictator. The other people on the No side who want to campaign solidly on the issues are portrayed as self-defeating losers who would be happy to throw away any chance of victory so long as they can avoid any taint of ideological compromise. In that respect, this is a film of impeccably moderate political credentials, with the compromisers presented as the people who achieve things where the steadfast radicals consign themselves once more to the dustbin of history. But the film is still sympathetic to the view of people who see the invasion of politics by facile aspirational advertising methods as fundamentally a retrograde step, regardless of the political outcome. Even so, the viewer is left to agree that the No campaigners were right to use any means necessary to oust Pinochet, including modern advertising methods.

Part of the fun of the film comes from its reproduction of some of the material from the referendum campaign. The No material features a lot of 'We are the world' style singing and people going on about a better tomorrow being on the way. Instead of campaigning negatively against Pinochet they focus more on all that positivity stuff, and they would so have used D-Ream's 'Things can only get better' as their campaign song if it had existed back then. The Pinochet gang seem a lot more defensive, either claiming that the country will be taken over by urban guerrillas if the dictator is defeated or focussing half-heartedly on Pinochet's achievements. They even have this amazingly rubbish moment in one spot where Pinochet himself speaks to camera and says something like: "Not everything I have done has been great, but I'm sure that if you weigh up the good and the bad you will see that there is more of the good".

I am curious, though, as to how many of the characters in the film are based on real people and how many are composite characters. I would also be curious as to how other participants in the campaign view the contribution of the advertising man. One thing you get with successful electoral campaigns is people retrospectively claiming that everything was down to their contribution (see, for example, Eoghan Harris' book about how he single-handedly secured the election to the Irish presidency of Mary Robinson), and I could well imagine that other participants would argue that the adman's influence had been greatly overstated.

I came out of this film thinking that people in Chile must really have hated Pinochet. His lot have a lot of advantages in the campaign - the ability to physically intimidate the opposition, the ability to see their advertising segments before they are broadcast, as well as de facto control of the TV schedules outside the 15 minutes accorded to the opposition. There would also have been the fear hanging over the opposition that if they were to lose then they could be looking at imprisonment, torture or extermination once the eyes of the world had turned away from Chile. And many voters seemed to have feared that the vote would not really be fair and that the security police would round up anyone who had voted the wrong way. Many seem also to have been convinced that the vote would just be rigged and that Pinochet would "win" no matter how the votes were cast; getting these people to bother voting was the big challenge for the No campaign. But with all these challenges, the No side still won. Huzzah! I was nevertheless struck by the quite large proportion of people who voted for Pinochet, effectively asking not to be offered the vote again.

There is a lot more I could say about the film but I think it would be heading into listing random scenes and themes in it, so I reckon you would be better off just going to see it (which you will have to do at home now that it has left the cinema). I will just mention one final odd feature of the film - that it was filmed on video (or to look like it was filmed on video), so that it looks like it itself is an artefact from the 1980s. I think this was done for artistic reasons, to make the reproduced campaign material not jar with the recently filmed scenes with the actors. I cannot say I entirely approved of this choice, as it makes the film look a bit poor (video really does look like shite when projected onto a cinema screen). I am not so wedded to postmodernism that I see the only way to represent the past being to make the representation look like it comes from the past. My own preference would have been for the film to reproduce the video-ed campaign material as it was and then to have the scene with the campaign workers and so on filmed to a proper standard. Not merely would this have looked nicer, it would have more clearly distinguished vintage material from the newly created.

If the DVD release of this film features loads of the original campaign slots as bonus features then I will definitely be checking that out.

Image source

Here is one of the original No campaign ads:

And here is a somewhat predictable article from The Atlantic, which linked to that campaign ad: 4 Things the Movie 'NO' Left Out About Real-Life Chile


Andrew Farrell said...

As you probably know, General Pinochet is no longer in charge of Chile, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the No side win the election.

The first half of that does not necessarily lead to the second! And in my case, didn't.

ian said...

That's true. I tend to assume that with films and things based on real historical events that everyone in broad terms will be familiar with these real historical events. This is not always the case in practice.