Saying “Si” to “No”

I just saw director Pablo Lorrain’s movie “No,” about the unexpectedly successful referendum campaign in Chile that unseated dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988.

The movie focuses its attention on Rene Saavedra, a fictional young ad man, to whom it attributed many of the ads used by the “No” side. (They were the “No” side because the question asked was whether voters would agree to an eight year term as President for Pinochet.) The rules permitted a maximum of 15 minutes every night of national television advertising by both the yes and no sides in the month before the referendum.

Following the movie’s focus, most of the critical discussion has revolved around the use of American-style advertising tactics. Comparisons have been drawn to Madison Avenue and ‘Mad Men.” Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post “Saavedra co-opts Madison Avenue ad strategies to create a down-with-dictatorship/up-with-people campaign.” Liam Lacey wrote in the Globe and Mail, “from a marketing perspective, [Saavedra] sees a chance to put his product over in the marketplace, and if that means selling regime change with a We Are the World-style charity video, why not?” Andrew O’Hehir, wrote in Salon, “ On one level ‘No’ is an inspiring tale of peaceful liberation, self-determination, and the fundamental clash between optimism and pessimism. On another, it’s a darker a more complex fable about the birth of the media age and the rise of the neoliberal consensus that conceived of all humanity as a market.” He concluded, “do you want to speak truth to power, and lose the election? Or do you want to beat the dictator at his own game, and move Chile into the future. Because the road to the future is paved with focus groups and cheerful rainbow logos…”

I think this notion of “selling out to win” that has dominated the discussion is misguided. I suggest looking at the Si and No referendum campaigns from the narratological perspective I developed in Governing Fable, and have frequently applied in this blog.

Every successful political campaign must have a positive story about itself and a negative story about its opponent(s). For the Si campaign the positive story was about Pinochet bringing calm, stability, and prosperity to Chile. In its ads, Pinochet the military dictator is re-interpreted as a genial, avuncular, civilian paterfamilias of the nation. The Si campaign also had its attack ads, associating the No campaign with economic instability, Marxist ideology, and the suppression of traditional family values. A No victory raised the spectre of a return to the chaos of the Allende years.

The No side had its negative fable, and it was a compelling one: Pinochet’s history of military dictatorship, suppression of human rights and civil liberties, torture, and the disappearing of the junta’s opponents. This story was told quite compellingly in ads narrated by the mothers of the junta’s victims.

But the No side could not win without a positive fable.

Because the No side was an alliance of opposition parties, there was no one individual who could be presented as a protagonist whom the voters could see as preferable to Pinochet. Rather the No side had to present its positive fable as an idea – the idea of personal freedom in a democratic regime. It portrayed the idea of freedom by portraying the goal of freedom as the pursuit of happiness. Hence the upbeat slogan “happiness is coming,” the upbeat music, the pictures of people openly enjoying themselves. I don’t see this is evidence of “the neoliberal consensus that conceives of all of humanity as a market” but as a reasonable attempt to portray, to people who may have forgotten, what it means to live in a free society.

The movie, at the end, shows spots with Christopher Reeves, Jane Fonda, and Richard Dreyfuss (speaking in Spanish) endorsing the No. I don’t see this as Hollywood-ism, but rather as a message to Chileans to reject the insularity of the Pinochet era and embrace a wider world.

As the character of Rene was a composite, one can reasonably ask whether a more factual approach would have portrayed the proponents of the positive message in the No campaign as less adman-like than Rene. In his review, O’Hehir noted that No has provoked a controversy in Chile, in particular about whether the movie’s exclusive focus on the advertising campaigns ignored the broader political campaigns, in particular the No campaign’s ground-level political organizing and voter registration drive.

The movie suggested that, when the counting of the ballots began, the possibility of the Pinochet regime stealing the election arose, and then made the case that people knew Pinochet had been defeated only when other military leaders publicly affirmed the No side’s victory. People living in stable democracies take for granted that elections will be run fairly and this fairness extends to the critical activity of counting the vote. In so many countries this is not the case.

Finally, a word about production values. The movie was shot with U-matic video cameras that were in common use in the late 80s. This has the advantage of making the film and the clips culled from the image archives indistinguishable. But the movie has the appearance of what Lacey called “smeary desaturated music videos from decades ago.” I would have opted for something more aesthetically appealing, and maintained historical realism through the use of clothing styles, facial hair, and home furnishings.

No is definitely worth seeing because it applies to a critical moment in Chilean history an understanding of the importance of political communication, and shows how an underdog group was able to communicate effectively.


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