A couple of years ago the Chileans made a movie called simply “No”. It’s askew in important ways, but stunningly apt for our situation.
In 1988 the Chilean dictator Pinochet, he of the torture cells and “desapariciones”, confident in his powers, orders a people’s plebiscite to decide if he should stay in power for another eight years. Even though the vote probably will be fixed, the opposition – liberals, good conservatives and radicals – persuade a young advertising executive, Rene, to brainstorm their campaign. The format is for each side to have 15 minutes of nationwide TV time for 27 nights. A “yes” vote is to keep Pinochet, a “no” promises a democratic election.
The rightwing government has the big battalions on its side, including the military and police and almost total control of propaganda. All the liberals have is most of Chile’s artistic community which pitches in to help Rene create an effective “no” campaign.
Rene’s problem as ad-master is that he may lose his conventional ad-agency job by working for the opposition. More poignantly, he is compelled to argue with his own side composed of jowled politicians emasculated by Pincochet’s tyranny and by oppositionals who suffered terribly under the dictatorship. Rene’s comrades demand “a right to be heard” and want the campaign to dignify and articulate their pain…at length.
Rene, more in tune with popular appetites because he’s worked on “Live on the Coke Side of Life”, we-are-the-world type of ads while in exile, tells his comrades their grim idea is a drag. The Chilean people have had a bellyful of depressing news. Let’s give them something to live for and laugh about and dance with. Many of his comrades are offended by Rene’s trivialization of their agony. Should political activism be turned into marketing rather than a discussion of principles? Much of the story is taken up by this heated, sometimes personal and ugly debate.
In the end, despite Pinochet’s intimidation, Rene’s ideas win and so does the “no” vote. Against all the odds and probability, Pinochet – under pressure by his own military who understand the logic of the “no” vote – bows out.
The meat of the film, directed by Pablo Larrain, is the sparkling series of visual images that Rene flashes up on the TV scene of smiling Chileans confronting not their grisly past but looking forward to a better future. He’s not afraid of using soap opera actors and high fashion models. Pushing the envelope, Rene even convinces the mothers, sisters and wives of murdered victims to give witness…by singing and dancing. An extraordinary moment.
It was a gamble to go against an encrusted, traditional, progressive mind-set and exploit the crass, shallow, pandering marketing tools and thus win the “no” campaign.
I take this film personally. Some time ago my stomach rebelled against much of the progressive writing and speechifying I’ve spent a lot of my life doing. All that shock-horror-misery. The awful word “plight”. Wallowing and even glorying in unhappiness, exploitation, inequality, discrimination etc. because there’s so much of it that activists feel we can change. Like Atlas we carry the world on our shoulders. Lightness of spirit is not one of our many virtues. I guess we leave the joy and optimism to comics like Bill Maher, Doonesbury, Colbert and rock concertgoers.
In a way the Chileans had it easy. They had only a single product to sell, democracy, while we have a spectrum of “issues”, agendas, points of view, studies, and Nobel Prize economists on our side. As a matter of fact I’m not sure WHAT we are selling to the people Out There.
“No” has flaws. It bypasses the undramatic grass roots effort that turned out the anti Pinochet vote, and the director’s camera is so in love with his leading man, Gael Garcia Bernal (who played Che Guevera in Motorcycle Diaries) that some potentially fascinating side characters are unattended . Still, “No” is salutary for those of us stuck in the same old ditch.
At the very least it may obstruct another of those terminally boring mass meetings – TROOPS OUT! EAT THE RICH! – in which every conceivable faction and constituency grimly demands their square foot of platform space to have their (long, long) say. Attending such meetings is where I learned to fall dead asleep on my feet, no small talent.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.