In 1973, Chile’s armed forces staged a coup against President Salvador Allende and General Augusto Pinochet took control of the government. After 15 years of dictatorship, Pinochet faced increasing international pressure to legitimize his regime. In July, 1988, the government called a referendum. The people would vote YES or NO to keep Pinochet in power for another eight years. The election campaign would last 27 days with 15 minutes of television advertising every day for YES and 15 minutes for NO.
No is the story of the those 15-minute slots in the campaign against General Pinochet and Rene Saavedra (Bernal), an ad man brought in to work on them. As well as documenting a pivotal point in the country’s history, it also marks the point at which advertising techniques came to be used in political broadcasts.
As you’d expect when opposing a military dictatorship, it’s not all plain sailing. They work in a perpetual climate of fear, with censorship, intimidation and defamation very much the norm. Nonetheless, Saavedra is determined to follow his convictions and get the right result for his country. Even within the opposition, conflict is rife, with many seeing the TV slots more as a platform than a way to win an election they believe to be rigged. Saavedra focuses on selling a vision of the future rather than documenting the horrors of the past. Apart from having some pretty emotive material, the elements of conflict and transition make No an incredibly powerful film. It is shot to look like it was filmed at the time and merges seamlessly with the period stock footage; the result is far more immersive and evocative than any glossy Hollywood recreation could be.
The enduring message of No seems to be one of triumph against adversity, of emancipation and celebration. Saavedra is doing what it takes to win whilst others are questioning his methods, but it could seem at times that this is treated slightly uncritically and that the result is presented as a vindication of his cynicism. It’s a great moment for Chile and for democracy, but surely not for the way that parties interact with voters, with emphasis shifting away from political debate and towards to treating political principles as just another product to sell. Whether the moral status of this unpalatable transition is glossed over or left for the viewer to infer as technique and lingo crossover is up for debate, but the power of the story is plain to see.
EXTRAS ★★★ There's a 51-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, as well as various interviews and Q and As. Those eager for a Chilean history lesson might want to look a little further, but there’s some great insight for fans of the film.