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The Chilean Mad Men of ‘No’

Posted on Mar 23, 2013
Sony Pictures Classics

“No,” the Oscar-nominated film starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, dramatizes a curious moment in Latin American politics: the 1988 referendum whose defeat resulted in the fall of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. That campaign marked a bittersweet victory for the nation’s largely communist opposition coalition. On the one hand, it finally rid the country of a feared and hated tyrant. On the other, it was a win that was due in no small part to the marketing savvy of the slick young ad men the coalition was forced to hire.

The film’s apparently pro-capitalist theme might seem an odd fit for Bernal, an outspoken leftist who has played Che Guevara not once, but twice. The actor, director and producer is also a human rights advocate and the co-founder of Ambulante, a muckraking documentary festival that brings movies—and perhaps even more important, filmmakers and filmmaking workshops—to remote locations such as jungles and even prisons in which the people have little or no access to cinema. So how did he end up starring in a film that would appear, on the surface at least, to be a celebration of 20th century free-market economics?

García Bernal met with Truthdig in Michoacan, Mexico, after “No’s” national premiere at the Morelia International Film Festival in November. Thankfully free of the ’80s rattail he sports in the film, the 33-year-old spoke openly about propaganda, Ambulante and his own reading of the movie in which his character is based on two real life mad men.

Sheerly Avni: The campaign won because it successfully sold the idea of “happiness” to the Chilean people. Did taking on this role challenge or reaffirm your negative opinions about marketing and advertising?

Gael García Bernal: It did both! I think that the marketing aspect of the film is not unique to one side or another. Propaganda can be a tool of any party, any movement, any organization. Look at the most famous images from the Cuban revolution. Why were they so iconic and so cool? Because they were staged, put together after the fact, after the fighting was over. And those kids in Cuba were so shaggy and hip and happy and they were showing the world that a group of young people could topple a government and run themselves. They sold it.

Avni: You could almost say that in this film, the advertising industry, and by extension capitalism, emerge as the “good guy.”

Bernal: Is it the good guy, or is it just that capitalism is Pinochet’s self-implanted poison? Because it was his own system that eventually undid him. He put in place a system of supply and demand, market structure and of course advertising, and it turned out that in this system, the ad men were much more savvy than the members of the military junta.

The men my character represents knew how to sell products, and when it came to selling democracy, they knew what to do. And as the film dramatizes, working with them was perhaps one of the biggest compromises that the communists and anti-Pinochet architects of the movement were forced to make.

Avni: Hiring a publicist?

Bernal: Yes, one thing you don’t see in the film, which begins with the No campaign itself, is that the referendum was made possible in part by all of the grass-roots work that Pinochet’s opponents had been doing—for years, going from town to town, asking people to speak up, share their opinions, stand up for themselves. But now when it came to an actual vote, the Chilean people were really terrified.

Avni: Why?

Bernal: There was a great deal of fear around voting in general at the time. In Venezuela, for example, you voted with your thumbprint. And in a recent election in Venezuela, the government had been able to seek out and investigate who had voted for whom. So people were frightened of the very idea of going to the polls.

Then there was a legitimate fear of rigging, especially among young people, because in 1983, there had been an election that was a complete nightmare—a fraud. So Chileans didn’t believe this referendum would be any different. Finally, there was another problem, which was that older Chileans had lived through the military coup and didn’t want to have to go through another crisis. And so it was the task of the No campaign to convince these two groups to come together and vote. They knew they would need to come in like—well, this is the ’80s, so—like Ghostbusters.

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