Once upon a time in Chile, critics of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship had to conceal their disapproval, at the risk of being detained, tortured, disappeared, killed or exiled. In 1988, after 15 years of Pinochet’s barbarity, the world community, including Pinochet’s staunchest ally, the United States, pressured the General into calling a referendum that would allow Chile’s voters to decide if they would extend his regime into another decade—or not.
The results of that vote pushed Pinochet from the presidency, a historical instance of a despot being removed from power without violence.
But as Pablo Larraín and Gael García Bernal learned while making No, a new film about the successful advertising campaign to stop Pinochet’s reign of fear with a colorful message of hope, people who fail to make history have a funny way of erasing themselves.
“When Pablo looked for people in the No campaign, there are many people that participated,” Bernal told an audience in Los Angeles recently. “Everyone says, ‘Yeah, I participated in the No campaign.’ ‘The rainbow? My idea.’ But the Yes campaign…”
Bernal trailed off to the laughter of the crowd. Having just seen Larraín’s darkly funny movie, which recounts the trials, tribulations and ultimate triumph of the “No” campaign, the audience understood how no one in Chile would be eager to volunteer that they had worked toward extending Pinochet’s rule.
“Everyone says, ‘Yeah, I participated in the No campaign.’ ‘The rainbow? My idea.’ But the Yes campaign…”
“It’s horrible, but it’s true,” Larraín says. “We could not find anybody in four years. And Chile’s not a big country.”
After giving it a thought, Larraín corrects himself.
“We found one guy, and I was only able to speak [to him] on the phone once,” Larraín recalls. “But the rest of the people who shot the ads [for the “Yes” campaign], I really don’t know who they are still.”
Although Larraín may have been out of luck when it came to finding direct sources for the “Yes” campaign, he drew upon his personal memories of growing up under Pinochet during the early ’80s, and he’s done considerable research into the regime while making two other acclaimed films, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), which are set during the same era.
A writer/director who prizes blending real artifacts from the past into his fictional films—in No, the actual campaign videos are used as touchstones to center the rest of the dramatic film—Larraín found a sly way to cast people who could authentically portray members of the “Yes” campaign, even though the real former strategists and government agents didn’t return his calls. So who did he call instead?
Eugenio García and José Manuel Salcedo, the two real-life ad execs who served as the basis for Bernal’s composite character, René Saavedra. Not only did García and Salcedo provide inspiration for the “No” campaign mastermind, they also appeared in the film as an adviser to the Minister of the Interior (i.e. the “Yes” campaign) and a government censor, respectively.
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No is presented in conjunction with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media.
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore