The advertising mad men who toppled Pinochet
Under pressure from the US, which helped bring him to power, a waning dictator calls a referendum on his 15-year regime, marked by state murder, torture and disappearances. Opposition parties are allowed a nightly 15-minute, late-night TV slot during the campaign. Should they take on the unequal struggle or shun the charade?
Similar dilemmas have occurred in many countries – Zimbabwe, for example. No tells the story of what how Chile dealt with this situation in 1988, when General Augusto Pinochet confidently sought a mandate.
The film’s title is rather gnomic. The subtitle is more revealing: “Chile’s Mad Men Who Brought Down A Dictator With Happiness”.
Some activists and politicians dismissed the referendum as a political ploy, with the result fixed in advance, and wanted nothing to do with it. Others, though uncertain, thought the referendum campaign would at least give them a chance to remind people of the appalling nature of the dictatorship.
Enter an attractive young advertising executive, Rene. He dismisses the early ad materials produced by the 16-party opposition coalition on the grounds that the litany of tanks and torture – though true – will turn off the voters, who want to look forward, not back.
He upsets the battle-scarred activists by producing a campaign based on fizzy drink marketing techniques, and is focussed on happiness: “Everyone wants to be happy.”
The film charts the way the campaign begins to capture the public’s attention, and then its heart, and unnerves the regime’s hatchet-men, whose own leaden Yes campaign looks, unsurprisingly, heavy-handed and authoritarian.
The drama comes in Rene’s relationship with his radical, estranged wife, who thinks he’s selling out, and their young son; with his boss, who is a member of Pinochet’s advisory board; and with the regime itself, which, when feeling insecure, automatically falls back on intimidation and thuggery.
The personal and the political are melded well, and the film grips, and amuses: producer Juan de Dios Larrain describes it as “an epic David and Goliath story, a black comedy with attitude.” It’s extraordinary how even if you know the outcome of a political situation a feature film like this can ratchet up the tension and hold the attention. The only drawback is that it’s a pain to watch. It looks bleached and is shot in a way to ensure that archival footage can be slotted into the new material, which is great for authenticity but not so good for viewers accustomed to the clarity of modern film.
The authenticity is also strengthened by devices such use of the songs and jingles from 1988 and the actual video of the No campaign’s nightly newscaster, returning to air after 15 years’ exclusion because of politics. Larrain even films Pinochet’s successor, Patricio Aylwin, with a 1983 U-matic video camera and inserts it into the restaging of the victory celebration.
I am wary of films that tell the story of a real event and portray real people, because film images are so powerful that they stay in your mind as reality. This is not a documentary: it’s a witty, exciting, scripted feature. But it does capture the heady excitement of real events, the risks that people ran, the compromises that were made.
* No is showing as part of the London Film Festival on 15 and 16 October at the Odeon West End
Also at the festival:
+ A tall tale of village life
+ Kuchus - the new Uganda story
+ A wry look at Zambia's solar system
+ The boy who became a bomber
+ Road movie for migrants