The creators of the new Academy Award-nominated political comedy-drama No could not have imagined a better fit for its leading role—which is one reason why they may be taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this February 24.
Mexican actor Gael García Bernal’s commitment to changing the world through stories well told can be seen in both the roles he’s chosen and in his business arrangements. Since making an indelible impression on international audiences in 2000’s Amores Perros, García Bernal has played Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara twice (in 2002’s Fidel and 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) and has partnered with childhood friend and fellow actor Diego Luna to form Canana Films, a production company focused on Latin American-themed features that explore social justice themes.
(Full Collaborative Disclosure: Canana Films is a producing partner with Participant Media—TakePart’s parent company—in Chávez, an upcoming drama about Mexican American labor leader César Chávez.)
Directly aligned with his resume of soulful and impactful projects is Gael García Bernal’s star turn in No, which opens in U.S. theaters February 15. From Chilean director Pablo Larrain, No brings to life an unlikely 1988 advertising campaign—a series of 15-minute late-night television segments—that effectively drove dictator General Augusto Pinochet from the office of president, a position he had maintained for 15 years through a brutal mix of violence and information manipulation.
(Fuller Collaborative Disclosure: No is presented in conjunction with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media.)
García Bernal plays 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.
Not to telegraph the ending, but things turn out better than any Chilean could have expected during the film’s opening scenes.
No’s perfectly fitting lead actor—to paraphrase director Pablo Larraín—sat with TakePart to discuss change through creativity, democracy’s global adolescence, and no mas inequality.
TakePart: Why did you want to make No?
Gael García Bernal: Hmm. Well, it all began when the Phoenicians…ha, no. I think it was Toronto, actually. I met [director] Pablo [Larraín] and [producer] Juan de Dios [Larraín] at the Toronto Film Festival, and they told me about this project that they were making. They wanted to do this film about the Chilean referendum in 1988 that overthrew Pinochet, and they said it was a comedy.
They weren’t quite sure. There was no proper script that they would dare show me at that point…
We kept on talking, and it was getting to know these guys and knowing that I would have this fraternal, amazing experience with them that convinced me to be really interested in doing this movie. Afterward, all the themes and all the issues and the character—and the way it was going to be done—the whole thing just made sense.
But to be honest, it was the friendship that started with Pablo and Juan de Dios, this very strong fraternal experience from the beginning.
“To be able to speak out, to be able to talk, to have a dialogue, is the main expression of democracy.”
When someone asks you what this film is about, what do you tell them?
I tell them that it’s basically about this referendum in 1988 that overthrew Pinochet. Sometimes I put in the tagline: “You don’t know how Pinochet was overthrown; so this is kind of the story.”
Because nobody remembers the part that publicity played in this campaign. Everyone can remember that there was a plebiscite, and Pinochet was overthrown, but the publicity campaign was one of the key points to make people lose the fear and go out and vote. And I didn’t know. I had no idea the big part that publicity played in what happened.
Did you meet any of the real people that your character Rene is based on?
Gael García Bernal: The character I play is based on two guys that were the main publicists of the campaign. One is Salcedo, and the other is Garcia. They are very different. One of them comes from an overt publicity industry kind of experience, and the other comes from much more of a sociological, almost philosophical, stance. They were both working as publicists in those days.
They mobilized a whole group of people that participated in this campaign. They wanted to make it huge—with creativity. They had a lot of things against them, and they had a lot of uncertainties. What they were doing was feeling right, according to the language of publicists, and they were hoping it was going to work.
The character Rene is based on those two, but there is a third element, which is the fact that he’s an exile. He’s an exile who returns from Mexico to Chile. That plays a big part in the film.
What characteristics, if any, do you share personally with Rene?
I’m a father as well. That’s important. And I grew up with a lot of exiles from all over Latin America. It was at a time in Mexico when there were a lot of exiles coming in. It was an unfortunate period, but us—as Mexicans—we won a lot in terms of friends and amazing people.
No brings to life a national call to action in 1988. What are some things that moviegoers today will relate to in those events?
Well, nowadays we’re living in a period where the whole world is kind of changing from a very childlike, innocent and hopeful feeling of democracy, and we’re becoming, you know, like adolescents. We’re questioning the big term Democracy.
Democracy in its true nature questions itself everyday, no? Many countries are experiencing it—or want to experience it—for the first time. It is not only elections. It is not only that symbolic kind of stance that is to have an automatic decision to say, “Yes we want this one!” Or, “No we want that one.” The whole democratic life is much more complex. It’s everyday with communities, with society, with speaking out, with freedom, with equality.
Sometimes your television will direct you to take the correct course of action. But you need to watch it closely.
So this film is resonant because of this questioning that is going on all over the world. And No is about the only dictatorship in the world that has been overthrown by a democratic means—by an election, let’s call it.
No explores the importance of freedom of political expression. Why is this right so important to you?
To be able to speak out, to be able to talk, to have a dialogue, is the main expression of democracy.
There are many examples of oppression of political speech, up to imprisonment, around the world currently—
Gael García Bernal: It is very unfortunate that dissidence is taken as a dangerous movement. Government institutions that are afraid of commentaries or people speaking out don't see the chance they have to establish a dialogue and to change things, really change things from within. Imprisoning people for speaking out goes completely nowhere. There’s a kind of let’s call it terror in subjugating people by imprisoning dissidents “legally” for doing something “illegal”—whatever that means.
There is also a type of repression, for example with journalists, that doesn’t come directly from the government, but still it comes from the spheres of power. Corporations or even organized crime also create this situation where it’s dangerous to say things.
No Mas is a phrase that comes up often in the film. Why is that phrase so relevant?
The campaigners against Pinochet were faced with an important word to begin with, which was to vote No. In the film, the characters articulate that it’s unfortunate they have the negative. They want the negative to become a positive. So how do we make this negative a positive? One person comes up with the answer: Let’s call it No Mas. Mas is the sign of addition. In Spanish, mas means “more.” No More. They opened up a new saying that many countries and many movements have adopted. People use it according to what they want the No Mas to be.
What do you say “no mas” to today?
I would say no more inequality. The beginning of a search for equality, for me, has been the beginning of a search for happiness. The personal journey that I’ve taken toward that, whatever way it manifests, I can say that happiness is that search for the common good. It makes me feel very good and alive, and I would say no more inequality.
What do you say No Mas to? Register your no vote here.
Related Stories on TakePart:
• Cannes Film Festival Says Yes to ‘No’
• 2011: The Year of Arab Spring
• A Short Biased History of Occupy Wall Street (Video)
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice. Email Allan | @Allan_MacDonell