The selection of a new pope from Argentina—and questions about his relationship with the dictators who ran that country for so long—should provoke more interest in the Chilean film No, just released in the US following its selection as one of the five Oscar nominees for best foreign film.
It explores the 1988 plebiscite, called in a surprise (but supremely confident) move by longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet, one of the generals whose 1973 coup, backed by the US, overthrew elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. Pinochet was under increasing pressure from abroad—even from the Pope, in a recent visit—to move toward democracy and so he ordered a straight up or down vote on whether he should remain president, figuring that since he controlled all of the main institutions in the country, including the media, he would get a slam-dunk “si” tally.
It didn’t quite work out that way and to the shock of many, in and out of Chile, more than 54 percent would vote “no”—and the country has never looked back, except to condemn the torture and killings and disappearances of that era.
But how did this happen? The film, directed by Pablo Larrain, is quite excellent but its focus on one aspect of the “no” campaign has drawn much criticism in Chile. First, here’s the trailer:
The hero of No is a mad man—well, I mean it in the Don Draper sense. Rene Saavedra—played by the wonderful Gael Garcia Bernal—is a youngish, super-creative, successful ad man (actually a combination of two real-life examples) who is not especially political, drawing barbs from his activist wife, from whom he is separated. Because of his background—his father, a Pinochet critic, was forced into exile—he is asked to help bolster the fledgling “no” campaign. It seems that both sides in the vote will each be getting fifteen free minutes every night on TV to make their case. Saavedra decides to do it, after witnessing his wife being beaten by police thugs.
To that point, in the film, the left political parties and activists have not put much effort into the campaign feeling (1) the vote is fixed, and (2) trying hard and losing would only legitimize the regime. But Saavedra tells them to get off their asses—they can win, if they run a new kind of engaging, positive media campaign.
Yes, they can still mention the foul deeds of Pinochet, but the focus must be on the “happy” future of Chile, if freedom comes. So he orders up film footage of average folks celebrating what they’ll be able to do if they win, mixed with comedy bits and ad jingles. The politicos and activists complain that this all seems like one big “Coke” commercial, but they change their tune, so to speak, when they see that it is taking off.
To make a long story short: The “no” side wins, Pinochet amazingly accepts it—though documents released last month show how hard he tried to stay in power—and steps aside, and Saavedra gets to carry his kid through the streets amid a massive celebration. Then he goes back to work selling products to newly-free Chileans.
Did it happen this way? Critics in Chile complain that the film focuses much too much on the role of the media campaign in the big win. They snipe that the director’s father had close ties to Pinochet and that Larrain probably wanted to credit media ‘tricks” for the dictator’s downfall, not the popular will of the people (the director rejects this). And they point out that the real reason for the victory was the massive voter registration drive they conducted. Defenders of the film reply that this is just sour grapes—the left politicos and activists are just embarrassed that they were lukewarm on the plebiscite until the media campaign got going. The director and star actor admit its not factually pure but captures the spirit and essence of that episode.
Frankly, I don’t know enough about Chile and that issue to weigh in, so let me refer you to this link for starters and then you can take it from there.
Excerpts from some of the actual 1988 media spots:
In his last commentary on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, George Mitchell wrote about how many newspapers opposed invading when we did.