The Lesson of “NO”
My friend and VCFA classmate Linda Washington just started her blog with a review of the film The Artist, and it inspired me to write about a film I saw last weekend that also sheds light on the creative process. The Chilean film No, directed by Pablo Larraín, is one of the five finalists for the Academy Award this year in the Best Foreign Film category.
Even if it weren’t one of the best pictures of the year, I would have seen it because it covers the period in which my YA novel Gringolandia takes place. Many of my friends were involved in the 1988 plebiscite that decided whether Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, would remain in power for another ten years. I remember vividly watching videos of the 15-minute NO advertisements, crowded into our tiny bedroom in Madison, Wisconsin — the only room in our house that had a TV — along with my husband, our then-one-year-old son Derrick, Nelson Schwenke and Marcelo Nilo of the “Canto Nuevo” band Schwenke & Nilo (they had brought the video and composed/performed some of the music on it), their U.S. manager, and several Chilean friends who lived in Madison.
No portrays a young advertising executive who, out of familial duty, signs on to help the media campaign for the 1988 plebiscite on the NO side — in other words, against the continued rule of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The NO side has been granted 15 uncensored minutes, and the people who have suffered under 15 years of brutal dictatorship want to use that time to tell their stories. The advertising executive, René, doesn’t think that stories of loss and suffering will “sell,” so he helps to craft a somewhat vapid but forward-looking campaign using beautiful young actors, catchy tunes, and the slogan that “Happiness will come” under democracy.
Underlying the differences in approach — the need to tell one’s story of suffering versus the use of pleasant images to turn the desire for democracy into a need because democracy is “cool” — are assumptions regarding whether the election will be free and fair. If the election is rigged, this will be the only chance the victims have to tell their stories, for the repression and censorship will return in full force. If the election turns out to be free and fair AND young René and his camp are right, there will be an opportunity in the future for those stories to be told.
No explores key issues I have faced as a writer and a reviewer of books from communities that have been silenced. What resonated most with me was the focus on the importance of story — particularly the insistence of those who suffered that their stories be heard. The protagonist’s experience shows that, at the same time as those stories need to be heard and respected, there are ways of crafting stories more effectively, so that they move audiences to empathize and, if necessary, to take action.