Actor Gael García Bernal and director Pablo Larrain attend the screening of ‘No’ at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival. (Photo: Vivien Killilea/WireImage/Getty)
Advertising. It’s like a pestilence. Stop to pump gasoline. Sit waiting for a movie to screen. Turn on the Internet. You have put yourself within range of advertising reach, a phenomenon you may experience as annoying intrusion, but you will never experience the degree of irritation from an advertising campaign that Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet suffered in the fall of 1988.
Back in 1973 General Augusto Pinochet had engineered a military coup that fatally removed Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende. By 1988, Pinochet’s 15-year dictatorship of Chile had become so efficiently lethal that it embarrassed his most valued ally, the United States.
Bowing to optics, Pinochet agreed to stage a referendum on his rule. The Chilean populace was granted the opportunity to vote either YES, to extend Pinochet’s reign another eight years, or NO, mandating that the dictator step down from the presidency.
More confident than cautious, team Pinochet granted the No side 15-minute blocks of nightly television time to present its case for shoving out the dictator.
What happened next is the kind of true life, big change story that could make, and in fact has made, a great movie.
No, a film presented in conjunction with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, stars Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, a brash advertising executive who leads a team of media hotshots to craft an ad campaign that promises Chilean voters something Pinochet could not offer: Happiness. Joy. Rainbows.
Sony Pictures Classics will release No in the U.S. early next year, and its prospects are good: The film took home the Art Cinema Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight.
No is the third film that director Pablo Larrain has set in Chile’s Pinochet years, following 2008’s Tony Manero and Post Mortem from 2010. With No, Larrain wraps up his Pinochet trilogy in a resolution of light and optimism.
In the pause between appearances at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Pablo Larrain sat with TakePart to talk about capturing the mood of dictatorship on film, why people who say voting is pointless are wrong, and what the world needs No Mas! of today.
TakePart: Why was it important to you to make this film?
Pablo Larrain: Well, because it’s a great story. Pedro Peirano, the writer, and I had an enormous curiosity about how they made this campaign, how they thought about it, how they created it; so this movie is like the map of the making of that campaign.
They twisted the message in order to defeat fear, to defeat pain. They did it with a message that comes from beauty, from the rainbow.
You know, dictators usually get out of power through a shootout, or through a violent situation. Dictators never get out of power through a democratic process.
That’s why this story is unique and original. It’s a story of an epic triumph, and it’s not coming from fiction. It’s something that actually happened in my country.
TakePart: What was the genius of the No campaign?
Pablo Larrain: Think about this: You’re living under a violent dictatorship, where there’s no freedom of speech, where you cannot say what you think, not in the newspapers, not on TV, anywhere. If you do it, you could be exiled. You can be tortured and even killed.
And then, you have the option, because of the referendum, to express yourself in a very open way, in 15 minutes of TV for 27 days.
So the very first thing that the No side thought was to tell people how violent and bad Pinochet was.
But people coming from advertising realized that, instead of telling everybody how bad the dictator was, the way to do it was to spread a positive message: “Look,” they said, “Why don’t we say, ‘If we vote No, and we pull out Pinochet, the happiness will come. The joy will come…. You will be able to say whatever you think…. You will be able to do whatever you want. … You will be able to express yourself.’ ”
They twisted the message in order to defeat fear, to defeat pain. They did it with a message that comes from beauty, from the rainbow. The storm is over. The spring is coming.
TakePart: What was it like working with Gael García Bernal?
Pablo Larrain: A movie like No, and a lot of movies, need an actor that can express a lot without talking. Even though Gael’s character talks a lot during the movie, the most interesting parts for me are when he’s not talking.
This movie shows a real story about how a lot of people defeat one of the biggest bastards in human history, which is Pinochet.
When that happens, the audience needs to try to realize what is going on in his mind. The audience is working too, with you, with the movie. That’s the connection a filmmaker is looking for. You’re looking for an active audience. How do you provoke that motion in the audience? It’s through mystery. Mystery is essential, and Gael has mystery.
TakePart: No is set in Chile, but what is its relevance around the world?
Pablo Larrain: No matter where you’re from, you can understand how important it is to have the chance to express yourself. The movie shows that if you get together with others, maybe 10 guys or maybe 100,000 or a million people, in order to change something you think is essential for the way that we all want to live, you can do it. This movie shows a real story about how a lot of people defeat one of the biggest bastards in human history, which is Pinochet.
TakePart: What do you say No Mas to today?
Pablo Larrain: Well, I think no mas, no more, people getting extremely rich while so many others are so very poor. The money everywhere is in 10 buckets. I would say no mas to the lack of proper distribution.
I understand that we have a system where opportunities are for everyone. If you’re smart and if you work, you can reach a decent life—probably. But not everybody has the same opportunities; so no more lack of opportunities.
And you have to respect different societies. I think that’s a big debit of this country, trying to impose the American way of living, the way the Americans understand society to other societies. That is not right, in my opinion.
Don’t ask others to necessarily think that the way things are done here is the way they should be everywhere. We live in a world that still has so many different cultures, and we want to keep that. The diversity is essential: So no more imposing your ideas to others.
TakePart: What did you do to capture 1988 in No?
Pablo Larrain: We bought 20 video cameras from all over the United States, all really old. Out of the 20 cameras, four were assembled and sent to Chile, and we shot with them.
We wanted to create material in the same way that the archival footage was made, so people wouldn’t know if they were looking at archival footage or something that we created. It really worked. We were able to merge the combination very well. The combination creates a beautiful illusion.
TakePart: What’s the hardest thing to get across when you’re making a movie about a time of dictatorship?
Pablo Larrain: It’s an emotion. It’s a tone. It’s something that is not on TV or on a photograph or a newspaper. It’s in the air; it’s in an atmosphere. It’s a society that is having trouble to breathe. That atmosphere needed to be grabbed in a very human way so the audience can understand that.
I made two movies that were very dark [Tony Manero and Post Mortem] and this one, No. It’s the light.
If you want to see how bright one light is, you need to put it in a very dark space, so you can see its brightness. That’s what this movie is doing.
A dictatorship is something you cannot express. How could you verbally express what happiness is, for example? Or what pain is? You have to go through it; you have to live it. A movie can, if it’s properly made, make you feel that emotion in a very particular way. It’s our job to impart that story, that emotion, to the audience.
TakePart: How do you respond to people who say that voting doesn’t make any difference?
Pablo Larrain: They’re wrong. If you think that the political situation is not going to affect you, you are very wrong. It’s very important that you vote, that you express yourself, or else somebody else will do it for you. If you don’t vote, you are misunderstanding what democracy is.
If you don’t like any of the candidates, don’t mark any candidate. Deny the system. You are saying, “I don’t like any of these candidates.” That’s an option.
But staying in your house, I don’t think it should be an option.