No (2012)

17 Aug

How do you sell the concept of democracy to a nation paralyzed and divided by over a decade of repression, brutality and disappearances? In what way could the largely commercialised medium of television be used to convince the populace of such a nation that the democratic process is even a possibility, and that the ‘dissent’ embodied by their act of voting won’t be used to endanger their own lives?

 Set in Chile in 1988 —towards the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime—, Pablo Larraín’s No presents us with this very problem —a problem embodied within its protagonist René (Gael García Bernal), the advertising executive charged with creating the opposition campaign for an upcoming plebiscite to continue or end the bloody dictatorial regime —a vote determined by the words “YES” and “NO” respectively. As the child of deported left-wing dissidents, René is caught between the duty to contribute towards this cause with poise and dignity, and the knowledge that these qualities simply won’t fit within the excess, superficiality and implicit racism inherent in the language of 1980s advertising and pop culture. How do you turn the politics of pain, justice and the unrealised dream of equality into a sellable product? How do you make such a weighty topic light enough to sell alongside soda and soap operas?

A true ad man at heart, René opts to frame NO within the most superficial terms as the option of freedom, hope and happiness —as his colleague remarks “what’s happier than happiness itself?” This angers the more sombre leftists (many of whom had personally been tortured and lost loved ones) and leaves the dictatorship’s YES campaign completely wrong-footed, out-marketing them by immediately attaining the concept of happiness for themselves, while the YES faction concentrated on red-scare tactics and imagery of violence and militancy— rhetoric the people of Chile had already had enough of.

Within its evocation of the Chilean 80’s, with all its fashions, jargon and culture of fear, No is a period piece with a difference, concentrating not only on the explicit repression of a military regime, but also on the ways in which restrictive and superficial media environments shape the way politics —even redemptive and liberating politics— must be performed. Ultimately, it presents both repression and freedom as being shaped by the same commercial factors —a perspective that serves us just as much today as it did in Chile in 1988.

By Camilo Diaz Pino

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