This awards season has been the most political in memory. No, I don’t mean the kind of backroom politics Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin play to gain Oscar votes. I’m talking about the films themselves. Lincoln is the passionate story of how an amendment is passed, sometimes through bribes and threats. Argo deals with the bureaucratic nightmare of freeing hostages. Hell, Zero Dark Thirty has caused an actual congressional investigation to take place. It’s no surprise that one of the nominees for best foreign language film is also about politics – the Chilean film NO.
NO tells the story of Rene Saavedra (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). In 1988 the ruthless Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was forced to call a plebiscite on his presidency. Most of the population believed the vote would be fixed and seemed to lack interest in the entire process. It was up to up the No side to rally the people and get out the vote to rid their country of this despot. In order to do so they hired the talented young advertising executive Saavedra to put together their television campaign. What the film does nicely is show how the No team is able to turn the vote around. It’s not one ad in particular or even the work of one man. It’s a team lead by Saavedra and a succession of ads slowly grasping the hearts of Chileans.
After a somewhat awkward first act in which single conversations are frequently cut to take place in various locations, and Saavedra wrestling with the idea of getting involved with the No campaign a little too long, it’s in the making of the ads where the film truly comes alive. Watching the debates on how best to sell the No vote feel like being a fly on the wall of a political movement. Saavedra, with his background in flashy cheerful cola commercials, believes the only way to reach the people is through hope and happiness. The members of the No movement are more concerned about telling grim tales of the atrocities Pinochet has inflicted on the people of Chile. The torture. The murders. And who can blame them after the way they’ve suffered. Where the true tension comes in is seeing if the No members can reach a compromise and if they push their campaign too far in either direction will it cost them the vote?
Beyond Saavedra’s relationship with his fellow No campaigners, he also has to deal with his boss at the ad agency: a staunch Yes supporter. This is the film’s best and most real relationship. Two men who work well together and clearly have affection for one another, despite the fact that they are deeply divided by politics. But the stakes here are far greater than liberal vs. conservative, the rights of an entire people are in the balance. Yet as tensions flare, the two political rivals continue to work on microwave commercials together. It’s a wonderfully complex dynamic. However, in one of the film’s best scenes we get to see how humanity between countrymen will always trump politics.
You can’t talk about NO and not discuss how it was filmed. It’s shot on 1983 U-matic video cameras and presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This again could be why I found the first act of the film to be difficult to digest. It takes some time to become adjusted to the format. But as the film moves along you realize the effect shooting on 80’s video has on you as a viewer. The footage shot in 2012 becomes blurred with both the No ads and archival footage making everything feel present. As if all this footage, the commercials, the scenes of Saavedra were shot concurrently in the 80’s. It makes the film truly a moment captured in time, like you are watching the history of Chile unfold.
NO is part of a trilogy about Chile under Pinochet that director Pablo Larrain has made. His previous films Tony Manero was about the most violent period of Pinochet’s reign and Post-Mortem was about the origins of the dictatorship. NO completes the circle as Pinochet’s time comes to an end. It’s certainly an empowering story and a fascinatingly made film that’s worth a look.