Saw this terrific film from Chile the other day, about the 1988 plebiscite to allow General Pinochet to serve a second eight-year term—Pinochet’s own constitution, proclaimed eight years earlier, allowing the president only a single term in office. Normally the outcome of a plebiscite in an authoritarian regime is a foregone conclusion but the Chilean junta, succumbing to international pressure—including from the Reagan administration—to conduct the plebiscite freely and fairly, decided to allow the forces for a “No” vote 15 minutes of free, in principle uncensored TV time a night in the month preceding the vote. The opposition to Pinochet—most of which was banned, repressed, and/or in exile—was disorganized and at an obvious disadvantage vis-à-vis the junta in terms of resources (institutional, financial, and otherwise). When the campaign began it looked like the “Sí” would coast to an easy victory, all the more so as the opposition was divided over strategy—over whether to even participate in the plebiscite (which many on the left saw as a farce that could only legitimize the junta)—and didn’t have a good idea as to how to effectively use the free TV time. The latter is the story the film recounts, of a hotshot young executive (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal), at what looked to be Santiago’s leading advertising agency, who essentially takes over the No’s ad campaign and imposes on the campaign’s skeptical leftist militants modern marketing techniques to win over floating and soft Sí voters to the No—and which of course won a big victory (and laid waste to the Sí’s ad campaign, which was headed by René’s reactionary boss at the agency).
That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which is one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of the role of communications and advertising in political campaigns—and is quite simply one of the best political films I’ve seen in a long time, period. It is also a fascinating depiction of the slow motion collapse of an authoritarian regime once political space was willy nilly opened up for the opposition to organize (and under international pressure, which was of central importance). The film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign pic, won an award at Cannes, plus several others, all well-deserved. Reviews in the US have been tops (Metacritic’s score was pulled down a bit by the nitwit critic from the New York Post), as they’ve been in France (in addition to the reviews one may read the article in Salon “When Don Draper toppled a dictator“). The reaction to the film in Chile has apparently been mixed. I’ll let those more expert on that country than I explain why (I used to be more or less knowledgeable about South America but it’s been a long time since I’ve read extensively about any country on that continent).
The director, Pablo Larraín, did one other film I’ve seen, ‘Tony Manero‘ (2008), which is set in Santiago in the late 1970s, during the junta’s années de plomb. The film was so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t how I felt about it.
Another political film from that corner of the world I’ve seen in the past week is the Argentinean ‘El Estudiante’, by first-time director Santiago Mitre, about a student at the University of Buenos Aires (Roque, played by Esteban Lamothe) who hails from the provinces and is more interested in hanging out and racking up sexual conquests than focusing on his studies. But thanks to a young leftist professor—and one of his conquests, but whom he falls for—he gets involved in student politics at the university and becomes a political operative, and which he is clearly a natural. The pic is all about the world of university politics in Argentina, which is pretty intense—public universities are autonomous and university officials (rectors, etc) are elected—and where the student parties (which go by fictive names in the film) are linked to national political parties and movements (here, left-wing Peronists, the extreme left, and Radicals). Reviews of the pic in the Hollywood press are very good (here, here, and here), as are most in France (though the spectator reviews on Allociné are somewhat less enthusiastic). I found the film interesting enough, though also less interesting at points. As one of the reviews I link to mentioned, “it’s easy to get the feeling of becoming lost in the details,” and which is what happened to me (and I wasn’t helped here by nodding off a couple of times, on account of fatigue, not the film). Though the politicking, infighting, and backstabbing one sees in the film are universal, the political context is specific to Argentina; student politics and the organization of universities in the US are completely different, of course, as they are in France (though there are some similarities in the French case, notably with activism in student politics paving the way to a later career in politics, and which is no doubt the case in Argentina). The theme of ‘No’, on the other hand—of political communication in electoral campaigns—, can be understood everywhere. I’ll see ‘El Estudiante’ again at some point but ‘No’ is definitely the more interesting film for those not expert on Chilean or Argentinean politics.
UPDATE: In a private communication Robert Barros, who knows Chilean politics better than anyone one is likely to meet, informs me that
there are a couple of factual errors [in the post]. The important ones have to do with the 1980 constitution contemplating the possibility of a second presidential term for a candidate selected by the military junta (didn’t have to be Pinochet, though he probably always saw himself in that role) and that the franja (the provision for free air time) had more to do with the internal development and implementation of the constitution than with international pressure. These variables in turn had to do with the internal dynamics within the military junta and with Pinochet.
Bob is probably the leading political science specialist in the world—and certainly in the non-Spanish speaking world—on Chilean constitutionalism. His book on the 1980 constitution is the one to read on that subject.
2nd UPDATE: An AWAV admirer outre-Atlantique informs me that he asked a Chilean-born and educated higher-up of a major international NGO what he thought of ‘No’. The response
He liked it both as an entertainment and as a depiction of history. He was not concerned by critics who complained it was historically inaccurate or that the director comes from a right-wing family. Like Argo, he said, it’s a good movie. As for the history, he said it captured the confusion and contradictions within the anti-Pinochet intelligentsia at the time and their realization that they had to move from a negative message to a positive one in order to win the vote.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.