A few years back I ran a little blog called Duende. It was more of a personal project than anything else, dedicated to me exploring Latin American culture. If I’m really honest, it also never really picked up any readership. So I was a bit stunned to get an email recently informing me that this interview, with Chilean director Pablo Larraín to discuss his then-new film ‘NO’, had been cited in several places! I thought I’d put it back up here for posterity, for the portfolio of course, and so it can be cited properly again.
When Chilean Oscar contender NO premiered at London Film Festival back in October, the film was (rightly) lauded for its depiction of the events leading to Pinochet’s removal from power. Ahead of the UK release of NO, I got the chance to sit down with director Pablo Larraín for a chat about the film.
NO is the true story of how, during Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, a group of advertising executives took on Pinochet’s regime with only 15 minutes of airtime a day. And won. It’s this “crossover from advertising with political communication” that Larraín says immediately attracted him to retelling this story on film, describing the perfect storm resulting from that combination of viewpoints as “something that is very interesting, and very unique.
“In my country we were – think about this – we were in the socialist process… then Pinochet came [into] power, he started doing all these horrible things. Then in this post-capitalist system, he brought this logic, and then that logic brings marketing, because it’s a system. And that marketing will also bring advertising. So he created his own poison! That’s a beautiful paradox. When the ‘No’ won, they used those tools.”
The use of these tools is one of the dominating themes throughout NO. And while in this particular instance the intent was good, there is still an element of manipulation involved in the use of the language of advertising as designed to achieve a desired outcome – even if, as Larraín points out, it was arguably the only way to score any kind of victory against Pinochet at all.
“I mean, think about this – we had the government of dictation controlling. Full control – they had full control of every newspaper. If you would write or say anything against them, they would put you in jail. They weren’t allowed. If you insist, you could get shot, thrown in the sea, disappeared. They’d fucking kill you.
“And then they had 15 minutes a day. So it’s like, of course the first reaction is ‘go out man, and tell everyone, how bad is this bastard! Let’s tell people that this guy kills people’. And this other guy, who lost his father, says ‘you have to ask where my father is’. There were thousands of ideas on how to attack him.
“Then this guy comes in and says ‘No no no no no, if you do that you’re going to lose, because you will create more fear, and people are not going to vote for anybody, they will just vote for the Yes, for the guys who actually like him, and we will lose. You can not attack him’. There’s other people who say ‘If you do that, if you don’t attack him, if you don’t tell people who this guy really is, you will have accepted his conditions. You’ll have said “Oh you’re right, you’re the president”. So if you vote, and you make this illegal process, you will accept his constitution’.”
“So it’s very complicated. And what’s better? That’s the question finally. To tell people who this guy is, to spread the word and hopefully make the change… or, to accept his conditions, to play in his field, and win the game. And that’s a real story.”
Those conditions, ultimately, included a series of television advertisements, leading to the film’s distinctive visual style. Larraín remarks that this developed out of a desire to draw the audience into the story, rather than being taken out of it by way of obvious technical changes.
“As a movie-goer, as a spectator, when I see a movie that has archival footage, and I’m looking at it, and then you have the star of the film shot on like, super-35 or on a high-end state-of-the-art HD… you can easily, immediately tell that it’s different, and break the illusion.
“So since we were going to use a lot of footage in any case, we didn’t know how much exactly but we were going to use a lot, I didn’t want for that to happen. I wanted to create an illusion where the the audience could get lost, to be inside of the movie all the time.
“It’s odd, and it looks ugly at the beginning. Everything that is around, it was sort of difficult, and a challenge. We brought this old camera – it’s like a 1983… low resolution tube camera. It was the very first system where they created video image throughout tubes. That’s why when there’s a highlight on frame, you’d get this sort of ghost, because they work on heat.”
Larraín acknowledges that shooting on a low-resolution, square format was a “risky move”, and there were concerns about how it would look on the big screen. However, these were quickly dispelled when filmed footage was combined with the archive films.
“So we tested [the camera], and it really merged. So we started doing it, and we shot with that, and what happens finally is that you have pieces of documentary coming from archival footage that became fiction. And you have fiction that we shot that became documentary! It’s a whole combination. I think it works because you are in the film all the time. And even though I could tell you what exactly we shot here and there, when you watch it you get [drawn] in again, because it works.
“But the campaign material is original. Every time it’s something inside a TV, that’s the original.”
As Larraín is quick to point out, the years following the victory of the ‘No’ campaign, and Pinochet’s departure from office, have presented their own challenges. “When [Pinochet] left, and the country got back democracy, we kicked the system. And so part of the state and… abuse of the system is what happened after he got out.
“What happened in [these] last 24 years [is], we have been spectators on how states can smother, every day. The companies are getting bigger, and the country’s owned by 7-8 guys, it’s in 7-8 pockets. And even worse, one of them is the President of Chile! That’s the reality. It’s numbers. It’s not opinion, it’s a mathematical problem. So there’s a lot you could say [about] that.
“I tell you, if I would have to go back, I would do it the same way. I don’t know if I would do… I would do a lot of things different, in the last 24 years. But I think the only way that we had to put him out was the way they did.”
“You know, dictators usually don’t leave power through democratic process. They leave through blood issues, whatever. And so we had the chance to tell this story – we had to do it!”
NO is released in UK cinemas on 8th February.