What Pablo Larraín’s ‘No’ tells us about Chile today
Last Friday, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated film ‘No‘, arrived in UK cinemas. The film looks at the 1988 plebiscite and the accompanying advertising campaign which enabled the Chilean citizenry to put an end to fifteen years of dictatorship, peacefully.
The disbelief on the face of René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal, when he realises his No campaign has been successful, demonstrates just how close the result of the plebiscite was. Pinochet’s legacy still divides opinion to this day.
A Chilean friend, Carlos, tells me he is impressed by the film. “The film is very accurate. I saw it all as a child and it brings back all the memories. I was a kid, but I remember a few things. My parents were pro-government – they were ‘Sí’. My nanny was against – ‘No’. She suffered constant bullying from my parents and my parent’s friends.”
Yet the film has also attracted criticism. “To believe that Pinochet lost the plebiscite because of a TV logo and jingle is not to grasp anything of what occurred,” wrote Francisco Vidal, a prominent socialist, on Twitter. The director of the No campaign, Genaro Arriagada told the New York Times that the film was a “gross oversimplification” that ignored all the many factors that contributed to Pinochet’s downfall.
The reaction to the film is a reminder of how Chile is still coming to terms with its past. It’s evident too in the recent announcement that the body of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, will be exhumed to discover whether he was poisoned by Pinochet’s men. It is evident elsewhere, in Alejandro Zambra’s new book Ways of Going Home, in which a father says to his appalled son: “Pinochet was a dictator and all, he killed some people, but at least back then there was order.”
The film reminded me of all the Chileans I had met while studying in Santiago, such as my Chilean history and politics professor who, in 1985, recalled witnessing an entire football stadium jumping, as they shouted: “El que no salta es Pinochet” (the one not jumping is Pinochet).
Others felt differently. A friend’s mother recalled the “tranquillity” Pinochet brought to Chile. She refused to acknowledge the countless deaths and disappearances, instead remembering how under the socialist government of Salvador Allende, Chile had been transformed into the “Cuba of South America”. She proudly told me how, before the coup, she had scattered chicken feed at the feet of military men, goading them into overthrowing Allende.
Another friend was exiled with his family to France, where he had no idea that people were even capable of supporting the dictatorship until he saw on television the protests against Pinochet’s detention in England in 1998. He told me that “very few Chileans fought for their rights and they accepted very easily what was imposed upon them”.
The film is a reminder of the diversity of human experience, of how close the result of the plebiscite was and how the debate over Pinochet’s legacy still shapes Chilean culture today.
But for some, the time for Chile to move on has come. “Today is just a memory from the past,” my professor wrote to me in an email. “We have had a democracy for the past twenty years now and Pinochet is dead. Most of the population does not consider it to be an issue anymore. They’re not trying to cover it up; it’s just been worn down.”