Film Review: No

no_filmByron Clark

After touring a number of film festivals and picking up the Art Cinema award at Cannes, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s film No has arrived in New Zealand for a limited theatrical release. This is Larrain’s second film looking at Chile’s tumultuous political history; 2010’s Post Mortem was set during the 1973 military coup that overthrew leftist President Salvador Allende, inaugurating the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. No is set in 1988 and takes place during the historic referendum on whether or not Pinochet should have another 8-year term as President.

While the film is certainly one to see for fans for Latin American cinema or anyone with an interest in Chile’s history, it also provides some ideas for those active in political campaigns today.

Gael García Bernal (star of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) plays René, an advertising agent who is shown at the beginning of the film pitching a soft drink commercial when he is approached by an old acquaintance requesting his help on the ‘No’ campaign.
When international pressure forced the Pinochet regime to hold the referendum, each side was given 15 minutes of advertising in the middle of the night over a 27 day period. The group of left-wing parties involved in the No campaign initially wanted to show the horrors of the regime on screen; torture, disappearances and restrictions on dissent. Rene, in contrast, wanted to present an optimistic view of a post-Pinochet Chile, which appears to have more in common with his soda and microwave commercials than the opposition’s suggestions.

While the conflict between these ideas makes for one of the best dramatic scenes in the film, the final TV spots that Rene and his team come up with represent the best of both worlds, not dumbing down the politics of the situation, but presenting them in a way that is catching and memorable. For example, when a jingle writer asks Rene why he isn’t finding a rock or folk singer to write an anthem for the No campaign he replies that he isn’t looking for an anthem, he is looking for a jingle.

One of the key themes of the film is the question of how to communicate political ideas. While most advertising is indeed terrible from a creative standpoint, the nature of capitalism means that it is the industry where many creative types will end up working and the skills of those people shouldn’t be written off wholesale. Cynical leftist attitudes toward advertising, such as those presented in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, fail to acknowledge its persuasive power. To quote Australian author (and former marketing guy) Max Barry “You’re probably not persuaded by advertising. The thing is, everyone thinks that, and advertising is a $600 billion industry. Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion. “

Locally, Unite Union recognised the impact that marketing had in their 2005-2006 “SupersizeMyPay” campaign. It adopted a striking red and yellow colour scheme for all campaign materials and borrowed the McDonalds created phrase ‘Super Size’. The campaign co-opted as much as it subverted the fast food industry’s own marketing. While of course the biggest impact came from a supersized organising effort and industrial action, visibility and public awareness of the campaign was increased by the way it was branded.
No deserves the critical acclaim it has received. The danger of working on a dissenting campaign under an authoritarian regime is shown through the intimidation Rene and his colleagues find themselves in. It is also shown in the conflict between Rene and his boss, who has been enlisted to work on the ‘Yes’ campaign. A subplot about the relationship between Rene and his ex-wife gives the character depth, though this subplot is unresolved by the end of the movie.

Larrain made the interesting decision to shoot the movie on U-Matic magnetic tape, a format widely used for news broadcasts in Chile (as elsewhere) in the 1980s, rather than shooting on film or a modern digital format. This means that archival footage blends seamlessly with the fictionalised narrative and adds to the realism of the film. Of course since No is deliberately low-definition you won’t be missing out on much if you forgo the cinema screenings and watch it on DVD. Whichever way you see it though, just make sure you do.

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