Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Yes for "No"

The Oscar-nominated Chilean film ‘No’, an entertainingly accurate history lesson, deserves a wider audience than it will ever get. (When I saw it locally, the cinema was barely a third full compared to the ongoing crowds jamming into the far more disturbing ‘Amour’.) It reconstructs the creative and decision-making process behind the political publicity created for the “No’ campaign in 1988 when Pinochet ran for president by himself and came in second.

That’s not an original gag—it was the headline in one of the opposition papers the next day. Ex post spoiler alert! He lost.

But that fact is not the interesting part of the history or the movie, which skillfully illuminates the debates that took place inside the pro-democracy camp populated by former exiles and victims of the regime’s ferocity. We see the impossible contradiction between the gravity of the issues being decided and the frivolity of the message-making machine, and it’s both gripping and exasperating. The only surprise at how opposition to dictatorship is eventually trotted out onto the TV screen complete with a snappy ‘I love democracy’ jingle and a bunch of corny accoutrements is that it doesn’t surprise us in the least. Nor does the fact that it works great. We are so used to being sold political messages in exactly this way that it all looks completely normal.

The missing link for foreigners seeing the film is any sense of how breathtakingly radical the 15-minute ‘No’ segments were for a Chilean audience that had not witnessed the tiniest hint of political dissidence on its television screens in many years. When those programs came on for the first time, the streets emptied out, and phones stopped ringing while virtually every living soul in the country sat by in stunned silence. And what they saw was just enough to help them overcome their multiple fears.

The ‘vote No’ ad campaign was so light and breezy, so familiar and digestible like the product promotions Chileans had got used to over the years of commercial modernizing, that the sympathetic populace, already hungry for change, was encouraged to take the chance. (This does not include the solid base of support that Pinochet enjoyed among the more prosperous types and a sizable sector of the lower classes as well.) Average, skeptical Chileans did not see any signs in the pro-democracy advertising of the difficult Allende years, which for them meant a return to the bread lines, polarization and instability. And many, though far from all, overcame their fears of reprisals if their ‘No’ votes were somehow spied upon and known to the authorities.

Overt denunciations of the military regime were carefully limited by the advertising execs such as the one portrayed by Gael García Bernal so that viewers could be reassured by the optimistic and welcoming tone of the images and comments, anchored by the avuncular Patricio Bañados (who appears as himself side by side with 1988 clips). Nonetheless, the cheery and frequently comic framework allowed the 15-minute segments to incorporate moments of seriousness such as the ‘Widow’s Dance’ by wives of the disappeared and dramatic revelations about the extent of torture within the political prisons, all common knowledge among us reporters but easily concealed to the rest of the country.

Director Pablo Larraín has come in for some criticism for his treatment of these events, but I can’t see how any serious observer could take issue with his choices, which leave very little out, from the over-confident pinochetistas to the scornful, serious types like the Bernal character’s ex-wife. Bernal himself plays a largely apolitical cypher, who returns after the excitement of the ‘No’ campaign to the mundane chore of peddling soft drinks and washing machines—much as Chile has done once the dictatorship was history as part of its embrace of the neoliberal (and very much post-Pinochet) modernization dream.

The only other gap I noticed was the incomplete picture of the role of foreign governments and the foreign press, of which I formed a part. The regime’s minions and media mouthpieces constantly harped on the nefarious desires of non-Chileans to oust Pinochet, and it was quite dangerous to appear with media credentials at their events, at the sight of which regime-worshipping old ladies would turn into screaming banshees.

But the desire to engineer a negotiated transition was very strong amid the Chilean business and political elites as well, including the pro-Pinochet elements, because they knew that strict adherence to the 1981 constitution, written under the dictatorship’s guidance, was their best ticket to continued dominance. That’s why the ‘No’ was allowed to triumph and Pinochet very, very slowly squeezed out, as illustrated by the news clip of Air Force General Matthei conceding defeat while Pinochet cooked up a way to wreck the vote count. It was a great day and also ensured that the transition would succeed—but within carefully defined limits.

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