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Film Review


The history of Chile from the late 1960's until 1990 is ugly: coups, dictatorship, repression, mass arrests, torture, and at least 3200 people who were murdered or literally disappeared after arrest by the security police. In 1970, Salvador Allende, an avowed Marxist senator, won a plurality, and the congress selected him to be president. He began to institute land and social reforms, nationalized the copper mining industry (which was controlled by American corporations), and established close relationships with Cuba and the Soviet Union. But in his efforts to help the poor, he also mismanaged the economy, and by 1973 his policies had split the country, deepened the depression, caused massive unemployment and strikes. The CIA was deeply concerned about Allende's relationships with the Soviet Union, and claimed that Chile was becoming a major base for KGB agents who were aiding leftist groups throughout the Americas. Although there were many Red scares during this period, the release of KGB files after the disintegration of the Soviet Union confirmed these charges. Regardless, Nixon gave the CIA authority to further sabotage the economy in an attempt to make Allende even more unpopular. And most damning, the CIA encouraged the Chilean military to stage a coup to remove Allende. The head of the Chilean armed forces, General Schneider, was assassinated by right wing figures when he opposed the initial coup, and in September, 1973, the military staged a successful coup, bombing the presidential palace. As the palace was being shelled and invaded, Allende killed himself.

A military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet took control and began a brutal military dictatorship. Congress was dissolved, martial law imposed, strikes and collective bargaining prohibited, and widespread arrests began. At least 30,000 Chileans fled the country, tens of thousands were arrested and often tortured, and thousands more lost their jobs because of alleged leftist sympathies. The new government used a group of American economists (including Milton Friedman) to advise on getting the economy going again, including privatization of many industries, and within a few years had dramatically improved output and employment, and reduced inflation. By the 1980's the military relaxed their grip and some civil liberties were permitted. Chile still faced sanctions and worldwide criticism, so in 1988 the junta decided to hold a referendum in which the voters could approve or disapprove another 8 year term for Pinochet. The election was intended to give Pinochet some aura of legitimacy. He was confident of victory, and the left was convinced that the election would be fixed in any case.

Using that tense period when the Chileans were trying to decide their fate, Pablo Larrain, a Chilean filmmaker (Post Mortem), has produced a film that examines the election campaign. "No" is based on a play, El Plebiscito, by the Chilean novelist, Antonio Skarmeta. The film opens with a young, hip Chilean ad agency executive pitching an advertising campaign for a new soft drink. The ad exec, with a beard and in Levis, is Rene Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. His boss, the very conservative agency owner, likes Rene, recognizes his talent, and wants to bring him into the business by offering him an ownership interest. Despite being the son of a well known Chilean leftist politician, Rene is not particularly political and only wants to build a career. Then he is approached by an important leftist politician who want Rene to help the opposition develop television ads to promote the No to Pinochet vote. Each side is allowed 15 minute per day on national television to promote their campaign. But the No's time slot is assigned to midnight, on the assumption that few would watch. Rene reluctantly meets with the opposition team and watches their proposed ads. He realizes that they focus far too much on the junta's crimes, and are not happy or optimistic. He tells them that they are selling a product, and should use modern ad techniques as well as develop a jingle. Despite much grumbling and a shouting match, Rene begins to help produce cute, quirky, optimistic ads, such as dancers dancing to the jingle: "Chile, happiness is coming". Some ads show children jumping up and down on a bed, teams of dancers, and other groups of happy people. The Pinochet supporters were simply using footage of Pinochet in his military uniform presiding over awards or kissing babies. Ironically the Yes to Pinochet ads strongly resemble Soviet propaganda films from the 1950's,

Rene's ad agency boss, unbeknownst to Rene, is a trusted advisor to the Pinochet government, and in meetings with high officials, tells them that their ads are terrible. One of the ministers ominously says that they will teach these "clowns a lesson", and it is clear that the lesson will be far more than simply a defeat at the polls. By this point, the film has developed an ominous tension as the security forces begin to harass and intimidate the campaign workers. We discover that Rene had been living in exile for some years, while his ex wife and son remained in Chile. They become an important component of the story.

Larrain uses a great deal of archival footage, some in color, of the destruction of the Presidential Palace during the coup, and the brutal suppression of riots and even peaceful rallies. The archival footage was shot with 1970's and 80's video cameras, and is grainy with peculiar colors. Larrain decided to shoot his film with the same type of equipment in order to make the archival footage seamless. It works, but it takes a while to become used to that jerky handheld camerawork and grainy picture. The scenes are well composed but I felt that this technique initially distracted the audience, myself included. But the result is a very documentary look to this film, which does add credibility to what is supposed to be a historically accurate story, although the director stated that Rene is really a composite character. Some Chileans have complained that the film understates the importance of a massive voter registration program that the No to Pinochet campaign mounted, and over emphasized the ad program. But most say both were important. Many of the ads shown are the originals, and one in particular is very powerful. It features a group of grieving women, each of whom performs a short solemn dance, then describes the reason for her grief: "My son was taken away by the police on ........., and I never saw him again". The acting is uniformly first rate, including those who play members of the military, with their menacing personas. Bernal is at the top of his form here, with a restrained, realistic style.

I loved "No" and was enormously impressed with the pacing, as the film continued to gather speed and power, and toward the end was unbearably tense. Even without its historical background, "No" is a very accomplished film and its historicity gives it enormous power. "No" will surely prove to be important and enduring, and a tribute to the courage of many Chileans. It is certainly a reminder of some of the disgraceful things that the US did in Central and South America, driven by our fear of Communism. 110 minutes long, and just opened at the Embarcadero Landmarks.

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