Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish, and then translated into English by the author.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín returned to the New York Film Festival this year with NO, a retelling of the advertising campaign that was instrumental in the referendum that defeated Pinochet in 1988. With doses of dark humor and witty criticism, as well as a remarkably raw look—imparted by the obsolete U-matic cameras on which the film was shot—Larraín finishes his triptych on Chilean recent history with his most complex and elaborate film to date. After the film’s press screening, we sat down to talk about NO, the campaign, and Chile’s troubled relation to the fictionalized worlds of its political past.
José Miguel Palacios (Rail): Tell me about the genesis of NO and its origin as a play by Antonio Skármeta.
Pablo Larraín: The play is called Referendum and I think it has never been staged—it’s a very short piece. It contains the essence of the film in that the two main characters work at the same agency (something that didn’t happen in real life) and because the point of view is from the ad man. From this starting point we began a long research process. We spoke with many people involved in the events and we transformed these events into a movie that wouldn’t operate exclusively in the realms of fiction and metaphor, but one that would also be capable of telling this story closer to how it actually happened. With the licenses of fiction, of course.
Rail: The decision of shooting the film on U-matic and to blend fiction with archival footage is related to that quest for realism and historical accuracy?
Larraín: Yes. It has always been very disruptive for me when films use archival footage because you recognize the device immediately and it breaks the illusion. So we tried to make a movie in which that wouldn’t happen and people would see only one thing. The possibility of creating an illusion where the archival footage becomes fiction and the fiction becomes archival footage is very appealing to me. A fascinating mixture is produced, and spectators are not quite sure which one is which.
Rail: It provokes interesting temporal connections too. For instance, those moments when we see former president Aylwin or the anchor man Patricio Bañados recording their participation in the campaign. First, they’re older, as they are now in 2012, and then with a camera movement or a cut we see them young in the TV monitors.
Larraín: It’s this wonderful thing that only cinema can allow. Plus, there’s a pragmatic factor. Who are you going to call? Let’s bring on an actor to perform as Patricio Bañados? No, let’s have Bañados play himself. It’s fascinating to me to see how a person’s body says again what it once said, thinks what was once thought, returns to where it once was. It returns, returns, and that’s the work of memory. It’s beautiful.
Rail: Speaking about memory, what do you think of contemporary Chilean and Latin American cinema that deals with its traumatic past? How do you see your own work within that trend?
Larraín: It’s impossible for it not to happen. How are we to not make films about events that have affected us all so much? Plus, it’s healthy. Insofar as one returns to the past and reflects on the events, it’s possible for us not to make the same mistakes again. As for the different ways to deal with this past, there are films that have a more abstract relation, if you will, and others that are definitely more concrete. What happens also is that films, the more interesting they are, the more they know how to hide their metaphors and their discourses, situating them in a place that affects you deeply as a spectator without realizing it.
Rail: Following that argument, why did you decide to tell this story focusing on the advertising campaign? What lies behind that gesture?
Larraín: A metaphoric space is produced. The idea that the NO campaign was done with the elements of marketing communication speaks about the pact that Chile signed with an economic model that we have not administered well. Today, Chile is a country that fits in the pockets of eight families. The state became smaller and inequality grew bigger, people are under huge amounts of debt. That logic, which has to do with marketing and with the model imposed on us by Pinochet, is already woven in the campaign and the referendum, because we said no to Pinochet but yes to his system. There’s a piece of the Yes that won. That’s why we focused on the ad man.
Rail: In relation to this ad man, Gael García Bernal’s character is a very interesting one. He’s some sort of outsider. He’s part of the triumph and yet he never seems to fit, he’s never convinced; he acts always from a place of disbelief.
Larraín: More than a political message, what we have there is someone who is in a deep existential conflict, in doubt about his job and his partner. It has to do with making a film in which the character moves around mysteriously. It’s interesting not to know what is going on with him, not knowing what he thinks. I like that because it makes the viewer think and reflect with the film through the questions he asks himself in light of the character’s behavior.
Rail: It seems to me that for a Chilean audience those questions are different now. The film allows readings and interpretations that would not have been possible had the film been released two or three years ago.
Larraín: Of course, there’s a relation between fiction and reality that depends on actuality, whatever is going on right now. Time changes the perspective of things. For instance, there are elements of the campaign that are now laughable, but they were not back then.
Rail: I say it also from the perspective of current politics: the first right-wing government since the dictatorship coinciding with a generalized disenchantment with the coalition that defeated Pinochet and the legacy of that center-left coalition. That seems to be at the origin of some of the most virulent reactions against the film coming from the Chilean left.
Larraín: Yes, what happens is that we have a problem with fiction. Or maybe they’re simply upset that it’s me making the film, a director coming from a family who is not in the left. But stories are there for all of us. These virulent reactions are so Chilean and so exhausting. There are people who believe they own certain events and thus have moral authority to talk about them. I am 35-years-old, I’ve never been a politician, and I’ve made a career out of producing films that I find interesting. I don’t think there are people with more authority to make certain films.
Rail: Can you elaborate on the idea that Chileans have a problem with fiction?
Larraín: Think about the TV show Los Archivos del Cardenal, or several others plays or literary projects. People say “No, it didn’t happen that way!” when art seeks a reflection on facts and events. We are people who make fiction and produce a space of reflection, that’s all. We have a problem with fiction and I think it’s one of the most hidden legacies of the dictatorship: not being able to understand fiction, to believe that everything works in the realm of reality, where abstraction is not possible. And abstraction is key because with it you build imaginaries, you create poetry.