4 Things the Movie 'NO' Left Out About Real-Life Chile

Pablo Larraín's recent film borrowed from the actual effort to depose Pinochet, but reality was far messier than a catchy ad campaign.
Actor Gael Garcia Bernal of Chile's Oscar entry "No" answers questions during the Foreign Language Film photo opportunity for the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, on February 22, 2013. (Reuters)

It's been quite the year for historical half-truths in movies: First Argo inflamed debate about the actual Iranian hostage crisis. Then, Zero Dark Thirty was accused of glorifying torture's role in capturing terrorists. And now, some Chileans are wondering why a new arthouse film makes it seem as though their country was liberated thanks to a modified soda-pop jingle.

In the new film NO, the rule of Augusto Pinochet ends after Chile's voters get inspired by a peppy ad campaign designed by a skateboarding, politically agnostic ad executive named Rene, played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.

To the tune of a catchy theme song, Rene's ads promise Chileans a brighter, happier future without Pinochet (and apparently one filled with horse-riding couples and sexy dancers). Voters take him up on it, showing up at the polls in droves and deposing the dictator with a 56 percent "No" vote in the 1988 plebiscite.

The movie was shot with a retro camera to give the appearance of authenticity and even included period footage of Pinochet and the ads themselves.

But in reality, the struggle to depose Pinochet and return Chile to democratic governance was a decades-long slog in which dozens of opposition leaders toiled to register voters, hammered out a platform, and persuaded bitter enemies to work together.

Of course, NO is just realistic fiction. The film is loosely based on a play called The Plebiscite, by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta. NO's director, Pablo Larraín, described the film in aNew York Times interview as "a strange balance between documentary and fiction," and said that "the way things happen in the movie is not exactly the way they were, but the facts are the same."

The Democracy Report

The movie is something of a love letter to democracy -- it's produced in part by Participant Media, the same movie house behind other social-action flicks like Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc. And the movie plot does adhere to a few realities. Chile's landmark 1988 plebiscite was a referendum in which citizens were given a choice over whether to end the dictatorship for the first time since the 1973 coup.

Vote "Yes," and Pinochet would stay in power for another eight-year term; vote "No," and the country would hold free elections.


Pinochet was one of the continent's most brutal rulers: His government "disappeared" about 3,000 of his political opponents, arrested more than 30,000, and cast away more than 200,000 others to live in exile.

But after 16 years of living without democracy, it was surprisingly hard to convince Chileans to pick another alternative. Rival anti-Pinochet parties had been feuding for years about whether a potential future new government would be pro-Western or Marxist. Many citizens were afraid to vote altogether, thinking it might cause them to be targeted, and some doubted the idea that Pinochet would honor the results of the vote.


Augusto Pinochet. (Reuters)

In the weeks leading up to the vote, each side -- Yes" and "No" -- was given 15 minutes of TV advertising time each night. The pro-Pinochet side alternated between cloying propaganda and foreboding images warning of an apocalyptic post-Pinochet future. Meanwhile, the campaign led by a coalition of opposition parties -- the "No" -- did in fact concoct a positive, joyful ad campaign, and Chileans did, for a number of reasons, overwhelmingly vote down Pinochet.

"But what led up to that last 30 days was only the last snapshot of a very long struggle," said Ken Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute, which helped to set up election monitoring during the plebiscite.


Genaro Arriagada, right, director of Chile's "No" campaign, speaks with Chilean opposition leader Sergio Bitar during a panel on March 26, 2013 in Washington. (Joy Asico)

I sat down with the director of the real "No" campaign, Genaro Arriagada, to talk about what life was actually like leading up to the plebiscite. Here are four surprising elements of that were left out or glossed over in the film version:

The guy who came up with the No campaign wasn't an outsider:

In the movie, the slogan the No campaign dreamt up -- La alegría ya viene ("Joy is coming") -- is ripped straight from the actual commercials the campaign ran. But the heads of the campaign didn't bring in a random local ad man to do it. Instead, American consultants helped the Chileans run focus groups, and they found a happy message resonated better than one centered on Pinochet's human rights violations.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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