Interview: Gael García Bernal talks ‘No’

A scene from No. Courtesy Mongrel Media.

Gael García Bernal tackles the social politics of South America again, this time as the ad executive who dreams up the television campaign that led to the defeat of Chile’s longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988. The powerful NO campaign worked on two levels, it promised happiness and a brighter future without him, with images of flowers, children, dancing and smiles. In reality it was a desperate attempt to unseat the man who ruthlessly terrorized and murdered citizens for almost twenty years. We spoke with Bernal in Toronto.

How much did you know about the NO TV campaign that ended the dictatorship?

I knew what happened, I knew that there was a big movement to overthrow Pinochet, and with the elections and they managed to chuck him out, but I didn’t know the big part publicity played.  That I didn’t know and nobody knows about was done with publicity.  There was a lot of groundwork that wasn’t in the film, political groundwork being done to convince people to register to vote, to know the possibilities of winning or not.  The publicity campaign was what turned things around and gave people hope and in a strange way, promised happiness. Some people argue that it didn’t come, but I think it’s a bit of a fallacy to say that because they overthrew Pinochet. Democracy came involved with a lot of sadness as well, a lot of introspection. We’re still in the childlike state of democracy in the whole world now, although we’re becoming more of an adolescent. We’re questioning and knowing and realizing that democracy is what happens on a day by day basis, in social action, in communities, in speaking out and in expressing oneself and respecting social justice and more. The most famous basis of democracy is elections. But for a while democracy is three elections, the ultimate goal of democracy, but I don’t think it is.  It’s not like that. It’s what happens day to day, the constructive thing is not black or white but a grey area.

In 1988 people were willing to vote ‘Yes’ on their own accord to keep a dictator in power. Why was that?

Mostly it is out of fear and how fear can manifest itself in many ways. It’s the unknown, the speaking out, it’s sometimes better if someone organizes it for you so that you don’t have much choice. It’s fear of choice and being self-reliant and able to make decisions for themselves which is quite scary. When you’re growing up the scariness of adolescence is being in the open. Sometimes you wish there was an impossibility. So it’s raining outside so we have to be inside. It’s a psychological and anthropological trait to be this kind of scared, and then we go, ‘what are the reasons for the fear?’. I’m going to be love.  The trust in love which makes you feel you can make that step towards a more free and responsible spectrum.

There was your character’s personal battle in seeking approval of father and estranged wife, the heart of the story within all this whirlwind of politics. How much did you emphasize that?

It is one of the readings that can be done from the character and for the characters. For sure there is a sense of wanting to regain his family which he has lost already and he wants to have a go at it one last chance. There is also the whole exile stuff which plays a big part, but in a more silent tacit way. I know exiles, I grew up with a lot in Mexico and it’s one thing, yes, you can use it in your favour and base your personality on that victimization. The most interesting people I know who have this thing of becoming someone else. They are still part of that pain but they became someone else, they don’t use victimization so that you have pity on them. They converted into something different. I find it moving and more in accord with nature. It doesn’t matter where you are born you are still a human being.  It plays but in a more subtle way; it’s there all the time and he only uses it once in his favour “Hang on, I’m also in exile, I know what I’m talking about”.  They’re giving him shit, calling him superficial and frivolous and he reminds them that “Hey, my father is this person”.  Who is his father?  We always thought his father was teaching in Mexico and as an exile there were thousands and thousands from Argentina, close to 80,000 exiles came in one go. It was a big number. Argentina and all the Latin American countries lost great people because of the dictatorship. In Argentina it was far more dangerous than in Chile.

Because you shot on video, the film looks uncannily like 1988.

We shot with an automatic camera from 1981 when we did the try-out tests. We tried everything from the Alexa to 35mm, 16mm, and USV. Seeing the material and how it came out, ten years ago we would have thought it looked horrendous, horrible, let’s not do this. Nowadays video has acquired a melancholy nostalgia feeling. Just like Super 8 did to our parents maybe. Nostalgia reminds us how we watched TV when we were expecting to see fifteen minutes to go to your show and if you missed it that was it. You’d be waiting for it to come again. It was a different time and space, which played a different part. In Latin America at 8 p.m. everything was dead because everyone went to see the soap opera at 8. Now it’s not like that even in Cuba! My son cannot stand TV ads. He goes “Change it!”  He knows he can watch things whenever he wants to on DVD or on the Internet, so an ad? Why? No!  Playing with that composition, what came from the outside… the US, the Americas, exercise machines. Stuff like that that somehow reminds us of our childhood and what were we thinking, from these little objects. The microwave oven was fascinating to them in the movie, and I remember them as a child. How did it happen? Laser technology? It’s a metaphor for the campaign, selling something the people don’t understand so let’s put the best face on it.

Is the film relevant today?

This is a very particular film, it’s incredibly pertinent, democracy is the biggest issue and its being talked about in the whole world, the Arab spring, elections all over the world all the parties that have won out of punishing vote. It’s not that they promise something great or different in Spain, France and England but it’s just that the opposition that is going to win, that’s it, without any formal platform. A vote of rejection. The election process is like a panacea of everything and it’s not, it’s much more complex. Elections have become extremely inefficient, a person talking to an empty chair and it’s become a big show, which is not bad, but it’s become a big, big show. Within that show it can be much more sophisticated and much more interesting. We have to be a bit cynical with elections. If we take it seriously we get heartbroken all the time. We have to be serious with democracy and build it up every day.

No is currently playing in select Canadian cities.

Top image: A scene from No. Courtesy Mongrel Media.

Anne Brodie

About Anne Brodie

Anne Brodie is a freelance film reporter and critic.