Say “yes” to seeing No, showing at the Belcourt Theater through April 18. The Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that drove audiences to stand in ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last May is moving Nashville to sit down in discussion now. No chronicles a historical hope-based marketing campaign to release Chile from Pinochet’s regime. Director Pablo Larrain says the movie’s theme is “defeating horror through happiness.”
No takes risks reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful by juxtaposing violence and fear with joy and optimism. It reiterates that the pen— or media “spin”—can be mightier than the sword. It proclaims the power of people to choose change, to say NO to oppression or the status quo, to do what’s right today regardless of a troubled past or unsure tomorrow.
In 1973 after being promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army by President Allende, Pinochet led a coup to overthrow the socialist government. By 1988, mounting international concern over human rights violations— 3,000 murders, thousands of accounts of “disappearances,” torture and exile—pressured Pinochet to call for a referendum. The people would vote YES or NO to eight more years of his presidency. His YES men and censors controlled the media. Voters feared the secret police. Confident of victory, the dictator offered the opposition fifteen minutes of airtime to make their case.
In the NO camp sixteen political parties unite and choose René Saavedra (GAEL GARCíA BERNAL of The Motorcycle Diaries) to steer them. Saavedra’s savvy in marketing and professional detachment prompts him to reject footage documenting the atrocities inflicted by Pinochet’s power. Rather than airing beatings, he offers balloons. Rather than a battle cry, he orders a jingle
But despite his cool composure, Saavedra is on the front lines. He’s watched by the secret police and his boss, Lucho Guzman (ALFREDO CASTRO), one of Pinochet’s advisers. He is also fighting for his family. His estranged wife, Verónica Caravajal (ANTÓNIA ZEGERS) is a radical, too spent and angry to raise her son or believe the election isn't fixed.
The film is based on the play The Referendum by Antonio Skarmeta. The screenplay was written by Pedro Peirano. Jose Manuel Salcedo and Enrique Garcia, the dynamic duo who were instrumental in the NO camp’s victory, merge to create Gael Garcia Bernal's character. They appear in the film as YES men to Pinochet. The soundtrack is a mix of Carlos Cabezas ‘ original score for No and jingles from the actual ’88 campaign.
After viewing the movie this week with a group of Chilean friends, I was invited to onces (tea) at the home of Jose Loyola (who Pinochet knew by name) and Dorothy Sek (who grew up in Communist Poland). Other guests were Pablo Bodini (who served in the Chilean military/ lived in Santiago during the Allende and Pinochet years) and Fresia Ninhauser (who flew to Chile after sixteen years of living in New York to vote“No” ). We gathered over bread, avocado, queso fresco con paprika, meat, sweets, and Fresia’s brew—strong, she says, because of her Arabic roots--to process the movie and memories of the Allende and Pinochet years.
Fresia: I went back to Chile in ’74 and I saw how my best friend and everything was. We knew lots of people who were killed. I had a friend and they took every single nail from his hands and toes. He was into politics. He said he preferred they burn him to the pain of that. They tortured him for years. My father also economically went down the drain with Pinochet. So there were a lot of things. I felt morally obligated. I went all the way (in 1988) to make sure I gave my vote. Every vote counts. I spent a lot of money on that one vote.
Jose: It was expensive! I like the movie. The movie takes me back to when for the first time in years you can see on tv someone saying something against the regime. It was unbelievable. Those 15 minutes the streets were totally empty because every night everyone wondered, “What are they going to show?” It was real nice and exciting. Every day it was something so new just to see the truth in an open media. We knew the truth from illegal, underground newspapers…the crimes, the tortures-- but in the official news only talk about the economy--nothing about the crimes.
I mentioned I’d seen Post Mortem—the second film in Lorrain’s trilogy on the Pinochet era—about a coroner’s assistant who falsifies records of autopsies to cover for the regime’s murders.
Jose: A lot of people knew that, but the official media said nothing happened. A lot of people like my family believed the official media. When I told them, ‘Hey, this is what all happened,’ they said, ‘No, no. The Communists invent all these things.’
Jose had been drafted, then chosen after a background check to serve Pinochet meals when he came on the military base:
He called me by my name. For good or bad luck with me, I got in with the officials. I wore a suit. I had long hair (for the military) and white gloves to serve Pinochet and the big generals. I learned cuisine and how to serve drinks. He didn't drink. Imagine if he had.(laughs) We said, ‘The walls have ears.’ You never knew who was listening.
He remembered when another waiter cursed in awe at the size of the limousines that pulled up with the ‘old man’ and his generals: "A security guard grabbed my friend from behind to take him to jail. Our boss said, ‘He’s one of my kids and was just excited.’ They let him go.”
Pablo But this is what you have to think about. With Allende I remember walking on the street and making the lines. I was 13 years old and I was instructed, ‘Whatever you find, you just sit there. You buy whatever they are selling. You bring that stuff home and we’ll switch it with something else. I was from a middle class family. So on the one hand, Pinochet killed and tortured, but poor people—you saw the maid in the movie--they were better off. They had access to things they had never had. So what do you do? You mess with politics-especially if you were on the left—and you get into trouble. Or you believe whatever you want to believe. You believe the press and have food on the table when you had to struggle beforehand. That was the dichotomy of the whole dictatorship. It’s very hard, very hard to judge. Depending on the side you were, it was black or white. On NPR they said when Pinochet died there were 2 demonstrations. One for and one against.
Fresia: I do have to tell you one thing. You know I don’t drink. I told you I don’t drink at all. But when he died, yes, I did drink. I got a glass of white wine and I was very happy!
Pablo: That’s fine. Everybody’s story is different and that’s what makes it interesting.
Jose: When Allende died and Pinochet got the power, my father opened a bottle of champaign because, for him, it was the end of his persecution. My father was the president of the opposition against Allende. They (Allende’s forces) had a secret police. And those guys just kicked our door in one night looking for him to kill him. People don’t believe that…I say, ‘Believe it or not, that’s what happened.’ The secret police were looking for my father. He’d have to hide for months and months. He had tractor companies and there were strikes because people who owned their own business don’t like Allende. My father was president of the whole union of tractor trailers. They were looking for him to kill him. So my father had to wear guns. He’d disappear for months, then come home with a beard. People don’t believe that. But I lived that.... Fresia knew what was happening during Pinochet’s time because she was in the US. In Chili everything went to the censors. All we saw on official tv was about the progress.
Pablo: It’s not about not believing (the truth). It’s about not wanting to believe it. The same thing with Germany and the Jews because they had food on the table. The economy was getting better.
Jose: Yes, like the nanny in the movie, a simple lady. She was for the YES because she was ok, her kids were ok. The country was stable and no crime. So people loved this. My father would say maybe some of those atrocities are real, but they deserve it. Of course there were terrorists who hurt innocent people. But when I went to college I was told that some people rebelling were not terrorists. They were people starving. My impression was the movie was correct. I liked the movie. I enjoyed it. It took me back home. The language, it was so natural. Even the way they made the movie was so realistic with the old cameras. (Lorrain used a 1983 camera so that shots and historical footage merged flawlessly.)
Pablo: What I really liked about the movie that was amazing was how they were able to recreate the tension. The persecutions. Like when they came and they took the woman out of the marketing company and hit her. They hit people…that tension was there. We all lived that. …For example, I had a friend that the whole family was leftist, a Catholic organization that gave refuge to people running away. I would study at his house and his sister would come to him and whisper. I knew there was something going on in the house. They were able to recreate that tension that was there at all times. The relationship between the partners—one working for YES and one for the NO. At any time…The bottom line is Pinochet screwed up. He thought he was going to win.
I said I understood the man in the movie who left the marketing meeting because he felt ads with picnics and ponies were frivolous. He had lost loved ones. They deserved respect and people needed to see the truth. He said Chile was not a happy place. But Savaadra believed it could be. The end would justify the means because lives depended on it. They had to win, and he knew how to do it. I said Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful took a similar risk when he used comedy and a child’s game in a Holocaust story.
Fresia: Oh, I loved that movie! I cried so much.
Dorothy: I loved it, too. It was the difference between the blackness of the situation and the light. Putting the comedy and drama together was risky but powerful.
Pablo: We can laugh now. No one in the movie asked who was for yes and who was for no. But you do have to know the person before opening up even now.
Jose: At my old job I met a guy from Chile. He was military. He said, ‘Pinochet was the best. Don’t say nothing against him if you want to keep good relations with me. I said, ‘What about the torture?’ He said, ‘I don’t care. They deserved it. I had two uncles who were put in jail after Pinochet left by the Communists. They are in prison and they’ve never killed nobody.’ Then he said, ‘I’m sorry. That’s me.’
Pablo: It’s still going to take a few generations. I don’t know if you heard but there was a reconciliation committee. They had a period of time when anyone could go and claim abuses. They tried to prosecute some of the most serious ones. At least they were able to quantify how much was the damage from a human perspective.
Dorothy: This (US) is probably the only country in the world where the conflict isn’t about ethnic difference. It’s about politics. In other countries religion and politics are intertwined. When you have an ethnic difference you will have a religious difference that adds fire to it. In Poland the Polish people got tired of Russians crossing over –every time the Polish government tried to do something different—the Soviets would send the troops over the border to ‘calm down’ things so nothing would happen outside of the Communist idea. So, it was never a conflict in the country. The blame was on the outsider. Whereas here the conflict is within.
I grew up in Communist Poland after WWII. WWII gave Poland away to the Communist regime and Poland was under foot of Soviet Union all those years. After WWII that German uniform is so deeply…it’s a brain wash thing. When I was in Chile and saw those uniforms I was distraught. My old prejudices kicked in. I grew up with an aversion to the military. It was used against people. People were drafted whether they agreed with communism or not.
Jose: Some felt so good with Pincochet because he gave to the country a pride because he never took shit. I’m sorry. But when Argentina tried to get our territory, he said, ‘If you put one boot on that island, I will put the whole army on you.’ Nationalism. It’s a way dictators get more sympathy.
Fresia pointed out the irony that Pinochet was known for his “No!” One such case was when a pop group tried to return from exile and he refused to allow them to get off the plane. But in the end the people said, ‘No more.’
I said how timely the movie is given Pablo Neruda’s body was exhumed this week to determine whether he was poisoned for political reasons. I said I loved the line spoken by a YES man as he saw the success of the NO productions: “All the artists are with them.” Pablo and I shared a favorite scene. Both a man being clubbed and the policeman beating him were labeled “Chileans" and the text noted they both wanted the same thing: peace.
Fresia said, “I think to really understand the movie you have to be Chilean. Seriously.”
I can’t imagine living under a regime. But I did leave the theater singing, “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (“Chile, the joy/happiness is coming”). I said that maybe the graphic images documenting Pinochet's abuse of power would not have won the vote because we tend to deny what we feel we should not or can not change. I said I was reminded of my childhood when violent coverage of civil rights protesters --battered and arrested—by Southern police were served with supper by the nightly news. Those abused were called "radicals" and "troublemakers" for breaking the Jim Crow laws. Some adults seemed desensitized and turned away. When the credits rolled at the end of The Help a couple of years ago, the audience stayed. For ten minutes women my age sat and cried softly in their seats. The disturbing black and white footage of the ‘60s we'd been told we were too young to understand had been brought to life by a personal story peopled with sympathetic characters and apt actors. The No cast brings Chile home.
At the end of the night, Jose’s daughter, Cindy, stopped by. She’d just seen No and wanted to ask a couple of questions about the movie. The Chilean-American is graduating from college in May with honors. She is considering joining the Peace Corps.