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The verisimilitude of fiction

No—a 2012 Chilean drama film directed by Pablo Larraín
The verisimilitude of fiction
Enrique Quintero

This article is dedicated to F. Gangotena, who in his early twenties went to Chile to support Salvador Allende and was assassinated by Pinochet’s army.

In 1988, after 15 years of a CIA backed coup and military dictatorship, Chilean people were to decide with a ‘yes or no’ vote in a national referendum, whether General Augusto Pinochet should continue in power for another eight years. Using original footage of the 70’s and cinematographic imagination, Pablo Lorrain’s “No” captures this important moment in Chilean history.

Since its release in 2012, the film has been caught in a pendulum of critical opinions. At one extreme of the arc of the swing we have its stellar reception at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Academy Awards inclusion of  “No” as one of the nominees for best foreign film this year. At the other end of the arc, important segments of the Chilean left see in Mr. Larrain’s movie a crass simplification of a complex political event. According to this opinion, by over emphasizing the role of the TV-jingles created by the fictional character of a young advertising executive, (Rene Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal) the film ignores the role played by unions, political parties, and other popular organizations who through a remarkable effort, registered 7.5 million people to vote in the plebiscite that initiated the end of Pinochet.

Yet the inclusion of all elements of reality in an art piece would prove counterproductive and such criticisms of the film reveal a faulty logic. If we take for example the massive sculpture at Mt Rushmore, would we argue that its artistic value is somehow questionable because it excludes the other 24 presidents prior to Roosevelt, or because it shows the presidents in the wrong sequential order (Roosevelt, the 24th president is shown before Lincoln, the 16th)? (We might make the argument for other reasons)  Or conversely, would we suggest that Jackson Pollock’s painting Lavender Mist—characterized by extensive amounts of paint “dripped” on its surface—is somehow incomplete because it could use a few more drippings of a certain color? This type of reasoning ignores the fact that each work, during the process of its creation, supposes selection and elimination no matter how realistic or abstract the work may be.

But the argument in favor of abstraction and simplification doesn’t apply exclusively to the work of art. Even for historians, the effort to contain everything is ineffectual. Unlimited inclusion of events doesn’t guarantee the quality of the work, or as Robert Rosentone notes, “ a short work is not inherently less historical than a long one any more than an article is worse than a book, or a 200-page book less historical than five heavy volumes.”

In spite of the abundant use of original footage and its reference to an important moment in Chilean history, it would be mistaken to watch “No” as a documentary or a historical narrative. Framed within the No Campaign against Pinochet, the film’s strong points lay not in its historical accuracy, but in its use of fictional and non-fictional elements to offer a new layer of interpretation about the forms and uses of political discourse. It raises critical questions about the forms of message the left should appropriate in the age of mass culture and mass communication.

Historically, we have been slow in recognizing that capitalism is no longer a system with a travel visa providing access solely to the economic landscape of social life, but rather, it has permeated all aspects of human existence including the human psyche. This has been accomplished mostly—although not exclusively— through the manipulation of linguistic and visual message in the mass media.

Confronted with this reality there are basically three positions to be adopted:
We cheerfully join the parade of mindless interactions with the reality “sold” to us by the system and the media.

We disagree with that reality, and as a form of resistance point out its limitations and the social injustice it generates and represents.

We disagree, but at the same time understand that the codes and signs used by the capitalist media are material, and consequently, they exist within human (class) interactions in a particular time. These codes and signs have not been magically exonerated of class struggle. Therefore, the left must take possession of these tools for its own purposes.

Too often, those of us on the left have limited our discourse to lamenting or enumerating of the evils of capitalism, unable to propose a message capable of transcending the causes of our lament. This perception is captured in the film when leftist militants abandon a NO- Campaign headquarters meeting, infuriated by the triviality of the message proposed by Rene Saavedra: “Chile! La Algeria ya Viene!” (Chile! Joy is on its way!) The simplicity of the jingle is interpreted as ideological treason and as an affront to the memory of all the suffering that occurred in the struggle against the dictatorship.
Conversely, aware that Pinochet has allowed the NO-Campaign only 15 minutes a day, for 30 days, to run ads in the state control television, Saavedra understands that the political moment requires a different type of message in which the manipulation of fantasy and desire—at the core of marketing advertisements—is used as a tool to subvert reality instead of perpetuating it.

Looking at “No” exclusively through the prism of history or its relation to the past would be incomplete. It is equally important to realize that “No” exist as a movie produced in the social conditions of the present. As such, 40 years after Pinochet’s coup, “No” is a reminder for Chileans of a past with which they have not quite completely come to terms.
Without trying to be historically accurate or revolutionary (there are many other excellent Chilean movies that fit in that category), “NO” clearly provides a negative view of Pinochet and the military dictatorship. In the US, the film provides an important point of departure for initiating conversations about political issues with a new generation of viewers who were quite young, or yet to be born, when their government actively supported pro-fascist dictatorships in Latin America. The old Leninist phrase, “for us, of all the arts, cinema is the most important,” seems to still carry some weight.

Just as in a work of art the artist must choose the integral elements of the piece, each generation is doomed to confront (or not), the social injustices of their time and choose the appropriate forms of response. In the US, the Occupy Movement was a form of response that successfully incorporated the issue of existing inequality into the public American discourse. Edward Snowden’s response to living in a system that legally excludes all possible questioning of potential abuses by the government makes possible public scrutiny of that government. The same type of existential choice was present for F. Gangotena forty years ago when he decided to leave his native Ecuador and support the struggle of the democratically elected government of the Unidad Popular in Chile.

Enrique Quintero was a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, then taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

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