No Didn't Win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, But It's the Most Fun

Pablo Larrain director of the Academy Award nominated foreign film "No," from Chile, poses for a photo during a foreign film
Pablo Larrain director of the Academy Award nominated foreign film "No," from Chile, poses for a photo during a foreign film nominee preview at The Dolby Theatre on Friday, Feb. 22, 2012 in Los Angeles. The 85th Annual Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

No, Chile's first-ever nominee for Best Foreign film, was never going to be playing in the sixplex next to Die Hard: The Reunion Tour. But when it didn't win the Academy Award, there went the possibility that Americans will even know it exists.

Let's correct that here.

In 1973, in a coup supported by the CIA, the Chilean military overthrew the country's first Socialist government. President Salvador Allende committed suicide; Augusto Pinochet, General of the Army, became dictator. The cleansing of progressives began immediately. When it ended, 3,000 Chileans "disappeared," 130,000 had been jailed, and 28,000 had been arrested and tortured. In a country with a population of just 10,000,000, I think we can call those numbers "impressive."

In 1988, there was a referendum on Pinochet's government. It was a straight "yes" or "no" proposition, and few believed that a majority would vote "no" -- or vote at all.

The rules of the referendum were simple: Each side got 15 minutes on state-owned television a night for 30 days. For the "yes" team, this was no challenge. All they had to do was show the economic hardship of the Allende years and then showcase all the wonderful "progress" Pinochet had brought to Chile.

The "no" side had a real challenge. To show torture and repression would be to remind voters that they had reason to fear their government. That would reinforce hopelessness. But for the progressive ideologues running the "no" campaign, that kind of programming would at least be a raised fist.

The "no" team brings in a consultant, Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a skateboard-riding advertising hotshot from Mexico who couldn't be less political --- we've seen him pitch a cola campaign in terms of the "social reality" of Chile. He looks at the commercial the "no" team has made --- and rejects it. What's needed, he says, is to treat the referendum like a commercial product and sell it to viewers. Like cola.

His approach: forget the past, ignore the present, focus on the future. A future without Pinochet. In short: commercials featuring jingles, a rainbow graphic, wide smiles and a slogan that's pure sugar --- "Chile, happiness is on its way."

No is about that ad campaign and its effect on the referendum. (The New York Times headline over the rave review of this movie: "Try Freedom: Less Filling! Tastes Great!")

The director, Pablo Larraín, shot the movie using rebuilt video cameras from the 1980s. This allowed him to show Pinochet's speeches and public appearances, TV coverage of political demonstrations and the actual commercials. As a result, almost 30 percent of the film is footage --- and it takes a while to get used to the look of the movie. ("I still get a lot of comments from people who, after watching the movie, they say: 'Oh you did a great job with Pinochet. That actor really looks like him,' " the director told an interviewer. "And I'm like, 'No, no, no, wait.' ")

When the vote was taken, 55 percent of the voters marked their ballots "no." But it's too simple to say that the "no" commercials were solely responsible. The anti-Pinochet force spent years on a grassroots effort to register 7.5 million Chileans. And on voting day, they got 96 percent of those voters to the polls.

No is a number of films in one. It's a romp: the clever young ad man making fun of the staid establishment. It's a thriller: Pinochet and his goon squads do not sit idly by as the ad man gains market share. And it's a primer: It suggests approaches we might use to make change in our own country.

There are many Americans who believe that Ronald Reagan knocked down the Wall. I am not among them. (I score an "assist" for Reagan.) I believe that what took down the Wall --- what fuels most revolutions --- is a sense of rising expectations. And those expectations rose in dull, economically depressed East Germany for two reasons: Levis and Bruce Springsteen.

I'm being only a little metaphorical. "No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures," Samuel Johnson said. Given a choice, we will always choose pleasure over drudgery and misery. Blue jeans and rock music? For the young, they beat anything the Communists could offer.

Here's a video of Bruce Springsteen singing Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" to 140,000 fans in East Berlin in 1988, a year before the Wall came down. Forget the performance -- just look at those faces! Who took the wall down? I say: those kids.

Or, better, watch this singalong from Springsteen's 2002 European tour. We're in Barcelona. The song is "Waitin' on a Sunny Day." But the band's not waiting. Here's Bruce, tossing his guitar. And sliding. Here's Clarence, a pillar of pleasure. Patty and Susie, moving together and grinning. Steve, at the mike with Bruce, grinning. Max, pounding away.

I cry almost every time I see this video. Cry from happy. Cry because I've been reminded, yet again, how happy happy can be.

This singalong is a chronicle of joy. And, for those who saw it, something to cherish as, a decade later, they take to the streets in protest of the government's austerity policies.

Look where we are in our own country. The government with a drone program that doesn't just kill "terrorists" in the Middle East won't say if it believes it has the right to kill Americans on American soil without judicial review. The polar ice is melting at such a rate that my daughter could witness the end of life as we know it. Congress can't even agree to stay in session for a month at a time. And there's surely worse we don't even know about.

How to deal with that?

If you can, see No.

My bet: You'll leave the theater with ideas that, two hours earlier, would have struck you as ridiculous.

[Reposted from]