It was a nice coincidence that “NO” finally came out in my neck of the woods soon after the death of Margaret Thatcher, considering how chummy she was with Augusto Pinochet. The plot of the film revolves around the 1988 referendum in Chile, where Chileans had to decide whether Pinochet should remain in power (vote ‘Si”) or go and let the country become a democracy (vote “no”).
It was international pressure that convinced Pinochet to agree to the referendum. And so, weeks before the vote, both the “yes” and “no” sides are granted 15 minutes of TV time to make their case. The Pinochet government know that they will win no matter what. The opposition thinks the referendum is a sham and that the vote will be rigged, so, they just want to use the TV time to raise awareness on the atrocities committed by the regime.
But the opposition still needs to put together 15 minutes of daily television programming in the hopes of driving up the voter turnout, considering the high level of expected absenteeism and learned helplessness. So, they turn to René Saavedra (played by the always excellent Gael Garcia Bernal), an advertising and marketing creative type, to help them with that. René Saavedra seems to be wealthy enough to enjoy material comforts. But there are hints that his father was sent into exile and therefore that he had spent years abroad. At the same time, in addition to the nice house, sports car, and toy trains, Saavedra has a son from an ex-wife who seems to get arrested a lot for protesting the regime. She seems to be his reminder to not be a total sellout.
At first reluctantly, then more enthusiastically, Saavedra becomes involved with the no campaign. This is where we see the first class of generations, when Saavedra meets with the opposition party leaders to discuss the TV materials. These leaders want stern reminders of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. After all, most have them have been, at one time or another, been arrested, tortured, etc. They think they have earned the right to have their stories front and center now there is a channel of expression. Saavedra suggests that focusing on the nastiness of the regime will only make people fear more powerless and afraid to vote. He gets them to agree (with some reluctance) to a more positive campaign, with much US pop culture references, catchy jingles, and a happiness-centered campaign. A big part of the film is dedicated to the (often humorous) production of the TV segments.
At the same time, the regime does not sit on its hands. As soon as the first spot airs, they realize they were not prepared for this and their ads, focusing on economic “success”, look stake by comparison. So, they decide to do what this regime does best: intimidation. Leaders of the no campaign receive threats, are followed by mysterious cars at night. Their tapes get stolen. The government tries to censor them. Heck, they even pull out the big guns by inviting Pope John Paul II to come for a visit. But nothing seems to work, so, the leader of the yes campaign (who happens to be the owner the ad agency Saavedra works for) decides to imitate the materials of the no campaign, making fun of their ads and, of course, appealing to the fear of communism is the no campaign prevails. At the same time, there is talk, among regime members, of payback against the opposition once the referendum is over and won, and international attention goes away.
During these parts of the film, all the participants get a reminder of what it means to live under a repressive regime. That reminder is especially needed by Saavedra who has lived abroad and gets shaken by the first threats he gets, to the point of letting his son’s nanny – an older woman – go scold the government agents who just vandalized his house, while he stays safely on the porch. As he realizes the nature of the regime, his commitment to the no campaign deepens.
I won’t spoil the ending but there is a little bit of suspense when the vote finally gets underway and everybody expects the yes to win because everyone expects the government to cheat. So, the opposition then has to decide where they should go from there.
This was a great film. The director gave it an 80s look by using Instagram filters so that things seems a touch out of focus, with RGB bleeding on the side, just like in the “old” movies before VCR tapes. This gives the film an “époque” look (that and Saavedra’s favorite mode of transportation: his skateboard) without 80s nostalgia (actually, the soundtrack includes more classical music, such as Sibelius’s Sad Waltz than 80s music). The movie weaves pretty well the macro context with the micro aspects of Saavedra’s personal life (biography and history, remember?).