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Joy is Coming

London, UK – March 2013 – as published by The World Weekly and The International State Crime InstituteDownload the PDF. 

In 1988, after nearly 17 years of a brutal military dictatorship that killed over three thousand and arrested or exiled tens of thousands more, Chile’s military regime, led by General Augusto Pinochet, called a referendum. It gave the nation the choice between another eight years of Pinochet or the chance for a democratically elected leader.

“The dictatorship thought it was the centre of the world. They were convinced they were going to win,” said Eugenio Tironi, one of the brains behind the plebiscite. “We didn’t know what would happen if we lost.”

Luckily for Tironi and thousands of Chileans they didn’t lose, but it took something very special to convince Chileans to finally say ‘NO’ to Pinochet.

It is this David-against-Goliath battle, which pitches fictional ad-man René Saavedra against the seemingly insurmountable dictatorship powers that forms the subject of Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated
film, ‘NO’.

The political thriller, Chile’s first appearance at an Oscars, follows Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, and his constantly bickering film crew, as they whizz around Santiago piecing together witty 15 minute prime-time TV ads. Their task: to convince Chileans that, in the words of their most memorable campaign jingle, “La alegria ya viene” (“Joy is Coming”).

Like the cameramen in his film, Larraín used 3/4’ Sony U-matic tape and 80s cameras to capture the evocative grainy appearance of original footage.

“The film is an extraordinary confusion of the real and fictional. When you watch the film you can’t tell the difference between real footage and a reconstruction. It’s all a bit surreal,” Tironi told The World Weekly.

Larraín also asked real-life figures from the campaign to appear in the film, leading Bernal to dub ‘NO’ a ‘Biofilm’. Patricio Aylwin, the first president elected in the wake of the plebiscite, and other actors, singers and dancers who performed in the original television clips, all have small cameos. Tironi, who among others inspired the character of Saavedra, also makes an appearance.

“Acting in the film I felt alive again,” he said. “There’s this ambience, this luminosity and attention to detail.  It’s not just the ‘look’ of the film but also the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that takes me back. For me, being involved in ‘NO’ was a therapeutic exercise.”

Chile as a whole is still undergoing a process of healing., and 25 years on Chilean society is still deeply divided. Only last year a very different film, a documentary homage to the former dictator, led to clashes in Santiago between anti-Pinochet supporters and police. A few months later four journalists were victims of targeted theft, losing laptops that contained investigations into dictatorship crimes.

“The referendum was a negotiated and democratic transition that allowed the military to turn over power and save face,” said John Dinges, author of The Condor Years and a Chile specialist who spent six years reporting on the dictatorship. “But Pinochet never served a day in jail, and the military still defies all attempts to require it to turn over information about killings and disappearances.”

The lack of justice and absence of closure keeps memories of the dictatorship fresh. But while ‘NO’ is so enjoyable precisely because of its 80s charm, cheesy jingles and ads that look like something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, those involved in the film say it is about much more than just a moment
in history.

“‘NO’ explores all the classic dilemmas of politics, especially the balance between conviction and responsibility,” said Tironi.  It is this, and what Larraín refers to as “happiness triumphing over horror”, that makes the film so universal. Its widespread appeal has already been attested to at Cannes, where it won the Art Cinema Award in the Director’s Fortnight section last year.

Indeed, in a post-Arab Spring/post-Occupy era the triumph of people power is an attractive message that many will pick up on—at Cannes Bernal referred to the film as “a reflection on democracy”. But the real message, according to Larraín, lies in the fact that Saavedra uses the dictatorship’s own capitalist philosophy in order to overcome it.

“René Saavedra is a son of the neoliberal system that Pinochet imposed in this country. That is why it is interesting that, with the same ideological tools, he is in charge of defeating Pinochet,” said Larraín. “To me, the NO campaign is the first step towards the consolidation of capitalism as the only viable system in Chile.”

This same extreme capitalism, however, prompted thousands of Chilean students to take to the streets throughout 2011 over the affordability of education, showing that Chile’s political system still leaves much to be desired.

“Pinochet’s narrative of communist conspiracy and exaggerated terrorist threat by the left has lost the battle for historical memory,” said Dinges. And that, regardless of the outcome at this year’s Oscars, is a victory for truth.”