Coverage of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival by Sharon Byrne
Politics, the potential ousting of a brutal dictator in an election with the world watching, where the tools of those seeking freedom from dictatorship are the arts, marketing and advertising…
What’s not to love???
NO intrigued me from the start. I knew it was about the Chilean election in 1988, a referendum somewhat forced by the rest of the world on Pinochet to legitimize his regime. He’d taken Chile by brutal force, as the head of the military. Now that rule would be put to the test of democracy, and extended another 8 years….or abolished.
On its face, it sounds fair….but here there be dragons. When the election ministers are all under the thumb of the dictator, what ‘fair’ outcome is remotely possible? When that same government censors news stories unfavorable to itself, and ‘disappears’ activists and protestors?
To give at least the appearance of fairness, each side would be given 15 minutes to present their case nightly, for 27 days, on Chilean National TV. Then the vote would be taken.
Enter the campaigns… keep Pinochet in power: Si! (yes), or vote him out – the NO. Under the glare of international scrutiny, lending perhaps some sense of oversight, openly identifying with either camp is very risky: if you’re on the NO team, and you lose, you’d likely be facing arrest, torture and execution. If you’re on the YES team, aligned with the dictator, which seems like a safe bet, you’re supporting a capricious man who might well turn on you at some point. And if he loses…you lose too – your standing, your support in the society dependent on his regime being in power.
That’s interesting enough to get me into a theater seat, but what NO does particularly well is rope you in with a compelling human drama through which the campaign story is told. The story centers on the genius and vision of a rising star in advertising, Rene Saavedra, played beautifully by Gael Garcia Bernal. Saavedra is first attached to the NO campaign as a consultant. His estranged wife is a political activist who spends more time getting arrested and beat up then she does with him and their adorable little boy. He feels powerless as her activism destabilizes his home life.
At the first meeting of the NO campaign, we see the video they’re planning to run: 15-minutes of death, torture, disappearances, arrests, and police brutality under Pinochet’s 15 year rule.
Saavedra frowns on the heavy video, and suggests a positive, upbeat campaign, similar to those he runs for soft drinks. Naturally, this idea flies like a lead balloon. The NO campaign is packed with 17 different political parties. Imagine getting that crowd to agree on anything. But when they interview some voters, they discover that there is no strong incentive to vote no: if people have food in their pantries, and decent work, they don’t see a need to change, despite the violence that installed Pinochet. Focusing on that brutal past, while perhaps vindicating and cathartic, was clearly not going to win the election. So the NO campaign pulls in a dream team of various artists that produce the campaign: an upbeat jingle that turns into a national anthem; a film crew shoots happy scenes of what the world will be like after NO wins and Pinochet is gone; and an artist crafts the rainbow logo (sold to the multiple political parties jostling in the campaign as symbolic of themselves – they’re all in the rainbow – a piece of salesmanship genius). Ousted newscasters return to help frame the spots.
The film expertly weaves the story of the making of the commercials with the commercials that actually appeared on TV. As the NO campaign gains traction, Pinochet’s team resorts to propaganda, censorship, and other dictatorial tactics.
In this escalating cat-and-mouse game of competing 15-minute nightly spots over 27 days, an ominous tone emerges – this is not just a campaign, or a simple election.
Saavedra’s home is broken into and vandalized while he and his son are sleeping. NO campaign team members are followed by Pinochet’s henchmen. Threats are made against the NO campaign team’s families. Pinochet’s military police storm a peaceful NO campaign rally, with fire hoses and clubs..
The stakes are supremely high, which makes the NO campaign team’s courage and tactics all the more impressive, in my opinion.
NO is Chile’s submission to the 2013 Oscars, and a strong contender. It won the Art Cinema and Directors Fortnight awards at Cannes in 2012. The screening at the Lobero Saturday was packed.
Put this one on your ‘must watch’ list – it’s outstanding!