Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated “No” is a vivid retelling of an important moment in his country’s history—a 1988 referendum in which the question was whether General Augustin Pinochet should remain President for another eight years. The film tells the story from the perspective of Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), an advertising man who was instrumental in fashioning the imaginative campaign for a vote against the dictator—a vote that ultimately restored democracy peacefully to Chile.
In Dallas to discuss the film, Larrain said that the script was loosely based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta. “It’s a very short play that I don’t think had ever been staged before,” he explained. “But what is interesting about the play is that…the point of view was through the eyes of an ad executive. So…it’s possible to be picked up from another point of view. You can use the main character’s perspective, the yes-guys, the politicians, the people in my country who were in the street for many years. But the idea of the possible perspective of the ad guy was interesting and dangerous. It was the starting-point.”
Though he was only twelve in 1988, Larrain still carried some recollections of the referendum campaign. “I remember that it was very shocking to see that on TV, because all the ‘yes’ images and logic were part of the propaganda we had for so many years, so we were quite used to that. And then these guys show up with this fresh thing, and it was emotional and unforgettable. I haven’t forgotten any of it, and I don’t think anyone in my country has, either. And then afterwards, when we got back to democracy, I grew up looking at TV and remembering this moment.
“And I was from a ‘yes’ family. My parents were for the ‘yes,’ and so it was pretty hard to forget because of that, because they were supporting Pinochet, just like half of the country was then. So I grew up with the sensation that there was something there. So when we started working on this [film], the curiosity about how they made the campaign was a very big issue for us, because we wondered how they did it, and who, and which tools they used, and why they decided not to attack Pinochet—which is probably the most interesting thing in the entire campaign. People in my country had no way of expressing themselves for fifteen years. [But] when they had the chance, instead of attacking Pinochet—instead of telling everybody who this guy really is, what he has done—they just decide not to do that and encourage people through a message which is more positive and beautiful. And that twist in strategy was very interesting and strong.”
Asked why so many—including his parents—still supported Pinochet in 1988, Larrain explained, “It [was] more on an emotional level than an ideological level. At that point a lot of people didn’t know exactly what was happening. And then when we got back to democracy, a lot of information came out, so we knew exactly what happened. So a lot of people changed their minds. You know, my father is a politician—a senator from the right wing. And in my country the fact that the son of a politician is doing this kind of movie is very interesting for the press.
“My family is very diverse….In Chile there’s so much cross-over in families. In my own family, both parents are from the right wing, and both grandfathers, one was a socialist and the other is a guy from the left, too. It’s like a zigzag. But a lot of people just stayed quiet while the dictatorship was in power. So you wouldn’t know what other people thought because it wasn’t a good idea to express it.”
There was some concern about casting Bernal, a Mexican, in the lead, Larrain admitted—largely because the Chilean dialect is so unique that it was uncertain whether he could be convincing. But there turned out to be no problem. “Gael has this wonderful talent for accents,” he said. “He played Che Guevara, an Argentinian, and he played a Spanish guy for Almodovar. I thought he was going to use a coach, because our accent is very special. And he did it very well—I was shocked. It was never a problem at all. He talked like us when we were shooting. And then I’d say ‘Cut,’ and he’d immediately go back to his Mexican accent. When we were rehearsing, he’d keep him Mexican accent. And I was like, how is he going to do this? I was very insecure before we started shooting. And then when we started [shooting], the very first day, the very first scene, which is also the first scene in the film, he was unbelievable.”
Another aspect of the film’s authenticity was a decision to shoot it in a 1980s format, using actual equipment from that era. “One-third of this movie comes from archival footage,” Larrain said. “Usually when you see a movie that has archival footage, it’s just a few minutes, so it won’t affect the illusion in the audience. But when you use so much…it was awesome how it merged, it would merge to a point that most people wouldn’t know what they were looking at. And we thought that sensation was much more interesting….than [if] the audience would always have to be recovering from one visual look to another. So we shot it in the same format. And what happened was that the archival footage became fiction, and our material—the fiction—became documentary. And that merging is amazing.”
As to the whole Pinochet era in Chilean consciousness, Larrain said, “Why is it a subject that still matters? I think it’s because we never got justice, so the wound would always be open. Pinochet died free, he never stepped into a courtroom, he died with multiple bank accounts, most of them here in the United States—he was a millionaire. And most of the people who tortured and killed others in my country are still free and walking the streets and nobody knows who they are. That’s very sad, and that pain is still dividing us.”
But as “No” demonstrates, the Chilean electorate took the opportunity to end the Pinochet regime when given the opportunity.