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When no means no, maybe

Jake Wilson: NO, Pablo Larrain


No No
courtesy Rialto Distribution
Can TV advertising be a force for positive change? The question is seemingly answered in the affirmative in Pablo Larrain’s No.

No is a docudrama set in 1988, when the Chilean people were invited to choose whether free elections would be held or whether the Pinochet dictatorship would stay in power for eight more years (the No of the title indicating a no vote to more Pinochet). As Larrain indicates, the vote was initially seen as a charade, but the authorities soon found themselves with a real fight on their hands.

Like many comparable Australian productions—from Newsfront (1978) to Balibo (2009)—No interweaves archival footage with supposed glimpses “behind the scenes.” Gael Garcia Bernal plays the youthful, skateboard-riding advertising hotshot René Saavedra, who reluctantly agrees to join the “No” campaign, a coalition of progressive groups permitted to broadcast for 15 minutes each day.

Gael Garcia Bernal, No Gael Garcia Bernal, No
courtesy Rialto Distribution
Though barely political, René is a man in tune with the times: in the opening sequence we see him proudly unveiling his latest American-style soft drink commercial, where close-ups of the product alternate with images of a clean-cut pop singer performing to an ecstatic crowd. His “No” campaign relies on the same aesthetic, favouring abstract euphoria—street parties, picnicking families, inexplicable mimes—rather than depressing torture statistics or statements from relatives of the disappeared. René’s activist wife (Antonia Zegers) is baffled by the approach. “Who are all these people laughing, celebrating, singing?” she wonders. “What country are you dreaming of?”

Essentially a satirist, Larrain shares some of this scepticism toward pop culture. The fundamentals of advertising may not have changed a quarter-century on, but even the most naïve viewer is liable to regard the clips from the “No” campaign—genuine period pieces, fictionally attributed to René—as dated and naff.

No No
courtesy Rialto Distribution
The “Yes” advertisements of the government depend on a more traditional, monumental species of kitsch, appealing to national pride with heroic shots of container ships and the beaming general himself. Advertising, it seems, is a language capable of banalising any message: the fact that this language was pioneered by radical filmmakers—from Eisenstein to Bruce Conner—may be part of Larrain’s ironic point.

Further paradoxes arise from Larrain’s decision to shoot on 1980s U-Matic video, with all its technical limitations: murky colour, blown-out backgrounds, minimal depth of field. Though his pseudo-documentary technique contrasts with the rapid-fire editing of the “No” spots, his aim is to create a seamless transition between the two, placing fake reality on the same level as authentic propaganda.

No No
courtesy Rialto Distribution
Indeed, René is such an elusive, depthless figure he could himself be a character from an ad. In many ways he resembles the CIA agent played by Ben Affleck in Argo (2012): both are technically-minded tricksters, boyish yet reserved, skulking behind their respective beards. Both reveal their humanity chiefly through their love for their young sons, a form of scriptwriting shorthand that smacks of commercial formula: shove a kid in there, and the viewer will have something to really care about.

But though Larrain is not above manipulating his audience, his depiction of admen as heroes still carries an ambiguous subtext. Some kind of tipping point is reached when the “Yes” campaign resorts to parodying its opposition—so that joyous dancers, for example, turn out to be Marxist terrorists in disguise. At this stage, politics appears to have evaporated; what remains is simply a battle between two sets of images, waged in a void.

Much as Argo both celebrates and mocks the American wishful thinking represented by Hollywood, No’s conception of advertising-as-dream is open to varying readings. Chilean audiences might understand the film as a nostalgic evocation of a moment when anything seemed possible; more cynically, the emphasis on marketing as a means of swaying popular opinion might be taken to imply that the hope of democracy in Chile was unreal from the outset.

At home, the film has been criticised for its failure to credit the role played by grassroots activism in drumming up support for the “No” vote. Also skated over is the fact—confirmed in recently declassified documents—that the US government had by this time reversed its earlier positive stance on Pinochet, fearing that resentment of his regime would catalyse the radical left. Not only was financial aid provided for the “No” campaign, but media consultants were dispatched from Washington to assist. Had Larrain chosen to dramatise this scenario, No would be a whole other movie—though it would likely have ended in the same ambivalent way.


No, director Pablo Larrain, Rialto Distribution, in limited national release from April 18; http://au.rialtodistribution.com/no.html

This article originally appeared as part of RT's Online e-dition May 1, 2013

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 28

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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