Originally conceived as the unpublished play by Antonio Skármeta; El Plebiscito, Pablo Larraín’s NO provides a cinematic dramatization of the 1988 Chilean referendum.
The referendum was reactive from international pressures, stemming from Chile’s alliance with America. Specifically, it was targeted at the 15-year dictatorship of General Pinochet, whose reign was characterised by his disregard and questionable approach to human rights. His résumé included: murder, torture, enforced exile and disappearances. Pinochet originally submitted to the referendum as a means to appease western demand, by allowing public platform of democratic choice by voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ under the illusion he would win.
The film focuses on the ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ campaigns, where the respective parties were allotted a 15-minute TV slot in order to promote their cause. The ‘NO’ campaign was built on the coalition of 16 political parties opposed to Pinochet’s dictatorship. Their team was headed by the film’s central character, Rene Savvedra. This campaign was pre-emptively under the notion that the referendum had been fixed to favour Pinochet. Therefore, they chose to highlight the atrocities committed by his dictatorship, depicting the violence exacted on the Chilean public, using montages of torture and murder to back their campaign. However, Rene believed this tactic to be counteractive, as the fear stoking content would inundate their audience into feeling powerlessness. Despite seeming detractors from the coalition, Rene sought a stance of optimism, gearing the campaign towards a more positive angle. He believed this approach would best elicit a strong emotional response and would convince the public to get to the polls. Rene harnessed aspects of western popular culture for the campaign, using celebrities and catchy jingles. The film makes use of the original jingles from the 1988 broadcasts. These broadcasts were reinforced with tag lines such as: ‘[h]appiness is coming if you vote NO’, alongside the image of a rainbow.
As well as depicting the nation’s political struggle, Larrain portrays the internal conflicts of NO’s characters whilst faced with the opposing parties. Rene is a young father and advertising executive, he is presented as softly spoken and with a youthful spirit. He is pitted against his own boss, Lucho Guzmán, a proud, middle-aged and brash man, who procures overt conservative support for the ‘YES’ campaign. This conflict builds tension on a personal level and enforces the idea of generational gaps and the stakes of personal pride.
The ‘YES’ campaign pandered more to the middle and upper classes, highlighting the economic benefits of Pinochet’s political run and the modernisation of the country. This is humorously depicted through repetitive shots and the use of microwaves as a symbol, a misguided perspective on what defined success within the culture. Pinochet’s campaign resembled more of a tribute to a divine figure: a father to the Chilean people, following a trend approach of former Dictators and of that which is prevalent today in North Korea. Their broadcasts were heavily focused on glorifying the nation’s military as their main source of content, with their side lines marked by adoring public.
The ‘NO’ campaign pioneered a change in advertising presentation blending between traditional forms of advertisement and politics. They exposed the ‘YES’ campaign for its dated content, which forced them to alternate their style and delivery. As the stakes rose they adopted and outright stole Rene’s techniques, which, contrary to expectation brought about the dying gasps of desperation within the Pinochet regime. This successfully builds intensity to the film’s crescendo, with the traditional underdog’s victory.
The disappearances of protesters referred to as ‘desaparecidos, the ones who just disappeared’ , are alluded to throughout NO, which carries subtle hints regarding the entwined dangers of opposing the dictatorship. Pinochet’s secret police the DINA shadow the ‘NO’ campaign as they gather steam and correspondingly the consistent use of violence exacted on protesters heightens the stakes of supporting ‘NO’. This instills a sense of anxiety and emotional investment to Rene’s pursuits, believing that he may fall foul of these fates as a result of his direct involvement in the campaign. This pathos perhaps at it’s peak during the scenes where a peaceful street protest becomes violent at the hands of abusive military infraction. Rene and his son are caught in the middle of fray, the close camera shots of their faces creates much tension, implying that anything could happen and possibly will.
Faithful to the period, the visual quality of the film has a retro aesthetic. Larrain shot NO with a 1983 U-matic video camera to accurately recreate the look of 1988 , his shots have a lack of contrast, providing a washed out look . Additionally, his cinematic choices give the film an amateur documentarian style. The use of archival footage lends to legitimacy and commitment by Larrain to reflect the time period in detail, immersing the audience to suspend belief, inserting themselves into the events of the time and siding with the ‘NO’ campaign. Larrain allows no room for a neutral stance, placing historical context within a driving factual account. His commitment to specifics and ability to maintain a constant presence of tension throughout the film is testament to both the level cinematography and the performances from the actors themselves. With the unison of these components forging the final product and being able to an insightful and interactive piece that pulls you directly into the Chilean political landscape.