March 29, 2013

Film Review: No

There is a great deal of irony in this entertaining film from director Pablo Larrain. Based on the unpublished play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skarmeta, No follows our hero, the young marketing and advertising whiz kid  Rene, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, as he works his madmen magic. His magic is needed to help the No campaign in the historic plebiscite held in Chile in 1988.

Under international pressure, Augusto Pinochet, who came to power on September 11, 1973 in a CIA sponsored coup, decided to have a referendum to decide whether or not he should rule for another eight years. Democracy, planned and managed, is promised. The ballot choice is simple: Yes to eight more years of Pinochet, or... No.

Both sides in the campaign are allowed fifteen minutes of television time each night to present their case. Chile has been under a repressive regime for fifteen years; the opposition is fragmented, and the generals and the elite otherwise hold all media power. Except for fifteen minutes each night for twenty-seven nights.

In the film, the veterans of the anti-Pinochet movement want to focus on the brutality of the past fifteen years, the disappeared and state-sponsored terrorism. Our hero is unmoved. He proposes something "a little nicer." His solution: singing, dancing, comedy, sunshine, rainbows and a contagious little jingle. Rene is selling a product, like any soft drink, and that product is happiness.

The film is produced in beautiful Low-Def using two centimetre Sony U-Matic video tape, the same system widely used by television news in Chile during the 1980s, and it meshes brilliantly with the real circa 1988 video of protests and repression. The movie is visually appealing and the hand-held camera scenes add to this travel-back-in-time film. The documentary feel created by the low-def production values only enhances the artistic magic of the film.

The film  has received mixed reviews in Chile. Genaro Arriagado Herrera directed the No campaign and accused the film's director of simplifying history and focusing exclusively on the television ad campaign while ignoring the critical role grass roots voter registration played in actually getting out the No vote. The director responded by saying that yes, the film is a fiction, based on real events, including the brilliant ad campaign, complete with rainbows as in the poster from 1988.

There is great truth to Arriagado's accusation; in some ways the movie, though clearly showing the brutal nature of the Pinochet's junta, trivializes the dictatorship and its power. Chile at the time was not an open society where people could criticize the government. To vote in a plebiscite took great courage, and significant organisation to get out the vote regardless of the presence of international observers. The television ad campaign was certainly helpful, and important, but the courage and determination of both organisers and the citizenry was paramount in winning the vote.

Still, the movie is fun and highly entertaining. By the end of the movie we want to clap our hands together in time to that infectious little jingle, the same one used in 1988. The film celebrates the victory of the No side and so do we.

And in brilliant irony, the movie's final scene, after the massive celebration, takes us to another place, an advertising pitch for a new campaign, a new product, and we are forced to wonder if we should be celebrating the moment when political activism turns into marketing - rather than an open discussion of values and principles.

Lift yourself up. Watch No. 

See the movie trailer 
and learn more about the film at the following link:

Copyright 2013 by Jim Murray.

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