No: The Movie is the Message

Ricardo Lapeira / May 03, 2021

As a Latin American, I sometimes feel there isn’t a really strong narrative around the politics of the region when it comes to art. In particular, I feel this is most strongly seen in the case of films. With such a rich regional history, It sometimes seems to me that there’s not enough material to watch.

Don’t get me wrong. There are numerous works of art, including movies, that masterfully deal with the subject of politics in the region. When it comes to politics, the region has given the world some of the most incredible artists. However, I feel that there isn’t a strong cohesive narrative. I might be biased on this. Growing up as a child with access to cable TV, I feel that I know more about foreign history than about Latin American history. It was easier to watch an American film than a Latin American one.

Gael García Bernal in the movie ‘No.’ The movie has the look and feel of an 80s film.

Luckily, this feeling disappears every time I see a movie like No. With the participation of the wonderful Gael García Bernal, No tells the story of the referendum that ended the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Whether you are familiar with Chile’s history or not, this movie is a must-watch. It portrays the power of creativity in politics, something that is both incredible, in the positive sense of the word, and scary.

A Lack of Films on Latin American Political History: A Fact or a False Belief?

I sometimes don’t know if the feeling that there is a lack of Latin American political films is a reality or just an unfounded belief on my behalf. I mean, after all, there are a good number of political films about the region. So, what’s a possible explanation for this?

The origin of this situation may lie in the following two aspects:

  • Although there are a number of good Latin American films that deal with politics in the region, there isn’t a strong narrative that brings everything together. Instead, what we find is a collection of individual stories that do not build something that is greater than themselves.
  • The other possible explanation is that, because it is sometimes too hard to access these films, there hasn’t really been a chance for a narrative to develop. Following these types of films has become something of a niche. The audience tends to prefer comfort when the time to choose a film shows up.

I feel that these two aspects reinforce each other. Because there is no strong diffusion of these films, there is no story, and because there is no story, there is no strong platform to watch them. It’s the chicken or egg dilemma in terms of a cohesive narrative around Latin American political films.

Why No Stands Out

With this said, why was No able to stand out? More importantly, does it play an important role in building up a new narrative around Latin American political films? For a start, I believe that No was able to gain recognition in part thanks to the participation of Gael García Bernal, one of Mexico’s most popular contemporary actors; however, one can’t leave aside the fact that the movie was directed by Pablo Larraín, one of Chile’s most acclaimed directors. I can’t help but wonder if the movie would have had the same success it if hadn’t been for the participation of García Bernal.

Regarding the second question, I do believe that the movie helps build a narrative around Latin American political films. As someone who experienced the release of No as a teenager, I feel my personal experience can contribute to the debate.

‘No’ protesters gathered around the campaign.

Watching No for the First Time 

I remember watching the movie at the local cinematheque in my hometown. At the moment I wasn’t really aware of many things about the political history of Chile and even less about the region. I realized this fact after watching the movie. Was it possible that I was unaware of something? Why did I know more about the history of the U.S. than of Latin America, and even worse, of Colombia, my country? That seemed pretty weird.

As I dug deeper into this peculiar situation, I started to realize that I had some conceptual holes in my cultural education. Since then, I’ve noticed that this wasn’t just something that happened to me. I’d say that the majority of the people I know from my generation have experienced this same situation, whether they are aware of it or not. This eventually led me to formulate the two explanations previously stated.

The Media We Consume Is the Culture We Create

When I think about it, this situation makes a lot of sense. After all, the media we consume is what helps us build our cultural codes. If there is no unifying thread that brings all the different Latin American political stories around the same narrative, why would there be a culture around it? Why would anyone even know about it if there’s not a tangible way to bring all the different bits and pieces together? As long as there is no coherent discourse around which Latin American political films can revolve, it seems unlikely to me that this situation will change any time soon.

Some projects currently exist that have tried to solve this problem. Retina Latina is one of them. This is a great platform to watch Latin American films, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in watching more of the region’s films. Nonetheless, a single platform can’t by itself solve a problem that has been for decades in the making. It will take more than a couple of well-intentioned platforms to create a powerful narrative that does not currently exist in the way it should.

The No Referendum

If you’ve read up until this point, you are probably already excited to learn more about No. In short, the movie depicts the campaign that helped convince the Chilean population to vote against the continuation of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. After 15 years of a military government, the Chilean government gave the people the opportunity to decide on their future: did they want for the current government, the dictatorship, to continue, or would they prefer a transition to a democratically elected government? Yes meant continuity. No meant democracy.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it is not that simple when you consider the context. Latin America has always had a complicated political context. Always moving between the far-right and its closeness to the military and capitalism, and the far-left and its revolutionary and communist ideology, the region has been the battleground for a number of bloody conflicts. The Chilean population feared, not without a reason, that in a bizarre way the dictatorship might not be that bad when compared to the communist revolution as seen through the lens of countries like Cuba. Why would they want to destroy everything the military government had achieved even if it meant a few deaths and the restriction of liberties along the way?

The Medium is the Message

It is hard to know what could have happened if the No wouldn’t have won the referendum. Similarly, it is hard to know if the No would have won if the campaign had been different. Nonetheless, the Chilean case gives us one of the most interesting experiments in contemporary culture and media. 

Although this is an oversimplification, No portrays the power of media and how it can be used for good. Although commonly portrayed as a tool for mass manipulation at the service of the bad guys, media can also be used as a force for good. This is what the character played by García Bernal understands throughout the movie that no one else seems to be aware of. By using the same techniques that propaganda uses to sell us stuff, the No campaign can actually defeat the dictatorship. Media has the power to sell us anything, even hope and courage.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was defeated through a referendum.

García Bernal’s character is an executive who works in a media company in charge of ideating publicity campaigns. That is why he gets it. He understands that the medium is the message, and although that is a comforting thought, it is also a scary one. It ultimately says more about the malleability of human nature than we would like. 

If you don’t believe me, go and watch No.

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