To be honest with you, this weekend was pretty disastrous. I am still suffering fairly heavily from my mystery plague, and I ended up stranded at work on Friday night, for various reasons. I live fairly far out of Central London, so by the time I was freed by the boys, there was little point to me going home, and I decided to occupy my time with a walk down to Shaftesbury avenue. I ended up at the cinema, figuring popcorn and switching my brain onto ‘absorb’ for a few hours would do me good before my shift. I like going to the cinema alone almost as much, if not more, than I like to go with other people. Watching films is quite an antisocial activity in my book, and especially on such a large scale as the cinematic experience. When I go on my own I can literally just let it wash over me, I can actually get lost in what’s happening on screen. Or maybe that’s just the oldest child in me, desperately fighting for something that’s her own, which seems to have been the theme of the past few weeks.
Anyways I settled on watching No, Pablo Larrain’s take on the referendum campaign that deposed Pinochet from power in Chile. My Chilean political knowledge pretty much stops at the violent Pinochet coup, which I learned about when studying Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits at university (I was an incredibly diligent little student, as far as it goes, and did all my secondary reading, not least because it was fascinating). I thought this film would be a nice introduction into what happened next. Plus, you know, Gael Garcia Bernal’s face is one of the finer things in life. There’s always that.
While watching the film I thought about the old ‘the revolution will not be televised’ chestnut. The referendum was hardly a revolution, but it was entirely televised. No is, to all intents and purposes, quite a gentle film, its message of optimism and change through positivity rife throughout. The referendum wasn’t violent, and this is essentially a piece on early use of technology for democracy. There are occasional sharp stabs of shock, actual footage of police brutality and military violence, and Saavedra’s (Bernal’s Ad exec protagonist) activist ex wife taking a fair few beatings from the police. There are threats from the regime, late night phonecalls and vandalism, but ultimately this movie’s message is one of progress and optimism.
Ultimately, actually, this is a movie about TV. there are TV sets in almost every scene. TV is seen to be the powerful driving force behind social progress. The message is that to master TV is to master society. The premise of the referendum was that both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns (to legitimize the Pinochet regime) would have 15 minutes airtime every day for 27 days in the lead up to the vote. Saveedra is headhunted by an old socialist friend for the ‘No’ campaign because of his success in the industry. His belief in TV is absolute. He doesn’t initially join the ‘No’ campaign to depose Pinochet, he joins ‘to win’. he overrides the fragmented left’s desires to use the campaign as a platform to gain exposure despite their cynicism that the vote is fixed, ignoring their demands to use the campaign as an atrocity catalogue or despairing swansong. he brings in rainbows, advertising jingles, America-influenced pop culture, makes the campaign optimistic and content-light, and therefore open to the widest interpretation possible.
His boss, meanwhile, is working on the Yes campaign, and their dayjob sessions on microwave commercials are fraught with tension and threats. None of which are apparent to their clients as they pitch ideas and shoot film. The friction is fantastic. there are some genuine laughs to be had at what makes it into both the domestic adverts and the campaign pieces (the best moment being the insertion of a mime into both a soft drink commercial and the first ‘No’ campaign piece, to the bemusement of test audiences). There have been several Madmen comparisons in reviews, but I think to do so is to treat the film superficially, as a piece of period fluff. The television takes a central role in this movie, but by no means is it frivolous watching.
The whole film is shot using eighties equipment, meaning the new footage blends seamlessly with actual footage from the 1988 Chilean campaign. it also produces some interesting effects, for example, whenever there is electric light in a scene, it’s overexposure leads to a rainbow effect, something that further emphasises the pervasiveness of Saavedra’s rainbow campaign. It gives the whole experience an immersive, documentary style feel; you’re granted an immediacy of experience, tricked into feeling like you’re there, caught up in the energy.
Naturally, the No campaign wins the election. The film finishes on a celebratory note, huge crowds singing and chanting. But we see Saavedra carrying his son home through the crowds, half smiling. We’re not sure he’s as pleased with his victory as we want him to be. As viewers we’re not convinced he learned anything cut and dried about politics while working the campaign. And that’s a conclusion I like, as it saves the piece from neat, Hollywood-style ‘viva la revolucion’ sentimentality. I left the cinema feeling uplifted but not choked on right-on self congratulation, which is an achievement for politicized cinema. And I still had the No campaign’s song in my head while I wandered through Chinatown in search of pork buns and red envelopes, and throughout my shift at work.