BY Rob White in Profiles | 20 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Truth & Dare

Chilean director Pablo Larraín discusses the merging of fact and fiction in his films

BY Rob White in Profiles | 20 JUN 13

The young ad man played by Gael García Bernal in No (2012) – Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s low-tech docudrama about the 1988 referendum that ended Augusto Pinochet’s 25-year dictatorship – is curiously placid. Nothing much rattles René Saavedra and this light-heartedness sets him apart from the earnest dissidents he joins on the anti-Pinochet TV campaign. ‘What we need are more testimonies,’ says one veteran left-winger, but Saavedra overrules him: ‘No, more humour.’

Saavedra concocts promises of a better future, not grim remind­ers of brutality. ‘Chile, happiness is coming’ is his slogan for soft-focus sequences of impending prosperity in the style of soft-drink commercials. This is how pr captures politics. In his 2002 BBC series The Century of the Self, which explores the unholy alliance between dumbed-down psychoanalysis and American business, Adam Curtis quotes banker Paul Mazur writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1927: ‘People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality.’ The irony is that it was Pinochet who – with the help of University of Chicago acolytes of the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman – violently imposed the compliant, forward-looking mindset of consumerism in Chile. The regime became a victim of its own success.

An activist shouts at Saavedra: ‘This is a masquerade. This is a campaign to silence what has really happened.’ Horrible facts are lost in Saavedra’s nebulous mini-fictions of happiness. What’s brilliantly effective about No, however, is its uncanny merging of fact and fiction: Larraín decided to shoot the film in the same 1980s video format as the original ads, which allowed them to be seamlessly inserted between the dramatic scenes. There must have been a risk that the film would be kitsch or nostalgic, but something more disorientating happens instead: No’s consistent visual texture actually makes it look very strange. The nearly square aspect-ratio is disconcerting now that widescreen is the norm, as is the large amount of lens flare and colour loss – sometimes it’s like watching 3D without the glasses.

Despite its Utopian vignettes, No never offers easy-on-the-eye immersion; the use of old technology keeps the viewer stuck in the shabby-looking past rather than fixated on feel-good dreams of the future. Because of its deceptively simple fictionalizing technique, this hybrid story of media fantasy-peddling makes for commendably uncomfortable viewing.

Pablo Larraín, No, 2012

Rob White Why did you shoot No on 1980s video?

Pablo Larraín Before shooting, I studio-tested possible cameras: Super 35, Super 16, the latest HD cameras, VHS, regular video beta, DigiBeta and, finally, an analogue three-tube camera from 1983. When we went to the editing room, there was just no doubt that we needed to shoot in the old format. This initially created concern on the part of the backers. You can’t just say: ‘Hey, I’m going to shoot this Gael García Bernal movie with 600 extras in a period setting needing elaborate production design and costume – and, by the way, I’m going to use this camera that has less resolution than an iPhone camera.’ The case needed to be made persuasively, but of course everyone finally agreed.

The blend of fact and fiction is very important. Movies are illusions: when it works, you’re taken inside a world where you can experience whatever you dare to experience. If a movie grabs me, I’m inside it all the time. But when I watch a movie that has archival footage in a com­plete­ly different format to the rest of the movie, it destroys the illusion. The difference is so obvious – and, in the case of No, 30 percent of the film is archival footage. So the danger was significant. There could have been a permanent friction between the two sources and this would have been a disaster for the effectiveness of the illusion, causing viewers to have to drift in and out of the movie. Shooting in the same format as the archival material solves the problem. And what’s really beautiful – but I never expected this – is that the newly shot material somehow became a documentary and the original footage became fiction. It was never managed, never controlled, but there was this crossover effect.

RW     To what extent were you seeking to reveal truths about the past?

PL     I’m a fiction filmmaker: I work with arbitrariness and doubt. I allow myself to work with those things because otherwise there would be no way to approach such an enormous subject as the Pinochet era. Fiction allows for the exploration not only of what actually happened but also of the impact of events at different levels. But it’s a suggestive process. I don’t want to be in charge of telling the truth to anybody, I don’t have a mission in that sense.

With that proviso, I would add that No isn’t just about the referendum campaign bringing an end to Pinochet’s government. Of course, it makes a great story that’s necessary for understanding my country. But I needed some­thing else, and it was the idea that the logic of communication and politics during the following decades was configured by the referendum. The ‘No’ campaign is the map of what happened next in Chile.

To go back further: Salvador Allende’s socialist project was halted by the coup in 1973. Then Pinochet’s government killed and tortured, creating the bloody circumstances in which an American ideology could enter the country. This is what my film Tony Manero (2008) is about: it isn’t a film about a dancer, it’s a film about an invasion. The ‘Chicago boys’ came to Chile in 1976 to implement Friedman’s economic system. They brought and instilled the corporate logic that produces the marketing and advertising techniques explored in No. An unintended consequence of the creation of this new system in Chile was that it would eventually lead to Pinochet’s own demise. He inadvertently created his own poison but his downfall wasn’t the downfall of the system at all.

RW     So, the referendum was a pyrrhic victory?

PL     Who won on that day in 1988? The ‘No’ campaign was triumphant, but how much from the ‘Yes’ stayed? A lot. Pinochet remained as commander-in-chief of the army for another four years and then he became a lifetime senator with immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile the state sector continued to shrink. My country became a company. Today the state is tiny. Chile is owned by eight guys and one of them happens to be the president, who’s a billionaire. That’s what I call a legacy, that’s what I call a logic: it’s huge and it’s something that I think is happening everywhere.

When advertising communication gets involved with political communication, what happens is that words start to mean less. If you see an ad that says, ‘Buy this TV because it’s going to change your life’, you look at it and you don’t care. Then if there’s an ad for a political candidate that says, ‘Vote for me because I’m going to change your life,’ you don’t care either. But the difference is that one guy is selling a tv and the other is managing the future of your society.

RW     So is No meant as a political intervention?

PL     I don’t think it’s possible for a filmmaker to change anything. If that were my ambition, I would be in parliament, as members of my family are. I’ve seen how my father and my grandfather and great-grandfather have made laws that actually create changes, right or wrong. Art is something more reflective and subversive. 

Based in Santiago de Chile, Pablo Larraín achieved international recognition with his second feature, Tony Manero (2008), a drama about a psychopathic fan of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. This was followed by the elliptical Post Mortem (2010), set during the 1973 military coup. No, which won the 2012 Art Cinema Award at Cannes and went on to be nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, completes a trilogy about Chile’s years of authoritarian rule. It is released on DVD by Network Distributing in the UK on 17 June. With thanks to Harry Moore for arranging the interview.

Rob White’s book on Todd Haynes (University of Illinois Press) has just been published.