The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020.

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Say Yes to "No"

Anne Edmonds takes a look at Pablo Larrain’s “No”, the third in a trilogy of films that examines the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

  

Pablo Larrain, director of "No", remembers as a twelve year old waving a "Yes" flag on the day of Chile's plebiscite on Pinochet's future - his politics have changed since then: "No" is the last of a trilogy on the dictatorship - "Post Mortem 2010 ( which I've not yet seen) deals with the US backed  military coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende; "Tony Manero" 2008 is a dark film about the Pinochet junta in power; "No" deals with the 1988 plebiscite which turns out to be the beginning of the end for Pinochet.

 

Pinochet's name is familiar in Britain after his visit here for medical treatment and Home Secretary Jack Straw's feeble response to his presence. I was on a week's visit to an old socialist friend and part of my host's plans for my entertainment was a demo outside the London Clinic to shout "Pinochet, out!" -  so I was particularly interested in events surrounding  the plebiscite which, fictionalised but using 30% of archive footage, are the basis for "No".

The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the young adman Rene Saavedra (an amalgam of two actual No campaigners, one the writer of the catchy 1988 campaign song "Chile, here comes joy") with Alfredo Castro (who played similar sinister characters in the two earlier films) as his boss, Guzman. Bernal is now a well-known international actor whose charisma and good looks put the "hot" Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney in the shade (personal opinion!) and his comically satirical performance will add to his reputation as a highly talented actor.

After a reign of terror involving torture, arbitrary execution and disappearances which affected thousands of Chileans, by the 1980s Pinochet was under international pressure to legitimise his rule so decided on a plebiscite: the terms were a 27 day campaign on the question -"Should Pinochet have a further eight years in power?", the Yes and No campaigns to be given 15 minutes TV time every evening to put their case.

We first meet Saavadra giving a presentation for a new soft drink called Free, via a commercial which, visually and musically, reaches the pits of bad taste. Shortly after, he is contacted by an old leftist family friend and put in charge of the No campaign's advertising; Guzman, meanwhile, becomes the voice of the Yes side. Saavadra feels he can win the No vote by applying exactly the same techniques he has used to promote Free; the left-wing Coalition of Parties for No don't expect to win but to concentrate on showing Pinochet's atrocities and so weaken further his international reputation. Saavadra wins the argument making "Joy" the watchword for No, telling the Coalition that misery "won't sell". He has to make one concession - a video of elderly, handkerchief waving widows in a stately Chilean national dance, partnering each other as the junta has killed their husbands, becomes part of No's campaign and we see it in real archive film.

We also see the crudely ant-communist videos used by the Yes campaign including a cartoon soviet steam-roller crushing the consumer goods (TV sets, lamps, babies' buggies etc.) which Pinochet's introduction of market economics has brought to Chile - Guzman hopes the fear of losing these will bring victory to Yes.

"No" is shot using 1980s video cameras so that archive and new material are indistinguishable - in one scene we see a mass of No supporters on the street, shot in 1988 - then, a pan to the fictional Saavadra speaking to the crowd from a No platform, shot in 2012, fits in seamlessly. In another sequence archive footage of No leaders as youngish men are cut into shots of them interviewed as the elderly men they have become today.

The ambiguity of Saavadra's character and motivation is a feature of the film - is he merely an adman responding to the challenge of a difficult sell or is he following his family background of left-wing activism? His relationship with his estranged wife, Veronika, a socialist activist, whom he hopes to win back, suggests the adman predominates - we see Saavadra at home with his young son surrounded by all that was modern in the 1980s - a microwave oven, electronic toys, gym fitness gear, fancy cars etc.; we watch him skate-boarding through the most modernistic and affluent parts of Santiago; I feel that, once the No campaign is won (as historically it was, leading to democratic presidential elections) and Saavadra goes back to working( under Guzman) at the ad agency ( as he does), professional ambition will push out political affiliation. Veronika does not return to him and it seems likely that political differences caused their split - in one scene she shouts insults at Pinochet's police thugs and is beaten up by them while Saavadra hovers impotently in the background.

"No" is recommended for its subtle screenplay and performances, its comically satirical look at capitalist consumer society and its bringing alive a piece of history which is still playing out in modern Chile.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

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George Monbiot

Green Left

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The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

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