4 Things the Movie 'NO' Left Out About Real-Life Chile

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Actor Gael Garcia Bernal of Chile's Oscar entry "No" answers questions during the Foreign Language Film photo opportunity for the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, on February 22, 2013. (Reuters)

It's been quite the year for historical half-truths in movies: First Argo inflamed debate about the actual Iranian hostage crisis. Then, Zero Dark Thirty was accused of glorifying torture's role in capturing terrorists. And now, some Chileans are wondering why a new arthouse film makes it seem as though their country was liberated thanks to a modified soda-pop jingle.

In the new film NO, the rule of Augusto Pinochet ends after Chile's voters get inspired by a peppy ad campaign designed by a skateboarding, politically agnostic ad executive named Rene, played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.

To the tune of a catchy theme song, Rene's ads promise Chileans a brighter, happier future without Pinochet (and apparently one filled with horse-riding couples and sexy dancers). Voters take him up on it, showing up at the polls in droves and deposing the dictator with a 56 percent "No" vote in the 1988 plebiscite.

The movie was shot with a retro camera to give the appearance of authenticity and even included period footage of Pinochet and the ads themselves.

But in reality, the struggle to depose Pinochet and return Chile to democratic governance was a decades-long slog in which dozens of opposition leaders toiled to register voters, hammered out a platform, and persuaded bitter enemies to work together.

Of course, NO is just realistic fiction. The film is loosely based on a play called The Plebiscite, by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta. NO's director, Pablo Larraín, described the film in aNew York Times interview as "a strange balance between documentary and fiction," and said that "the way things happen in the movie is not exactly the way they were, but the facts are the same."

The Democracy Report

The movie is something of a love letter to democracy -- it's produced in part by Participant Media, the same movie house behind other social-action flicks like Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc. And the movie plot does adhere to a few realities. Chile's landmark 1988 plebiscite was a referendum in which citizens were given a choice over whether to end the dictatorship for the first time since the 1973 coup.

Vote "Yes," and Pinochet would stay in power for another eight-year term; vote "No," and the country would hold free elections.

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Pinochet was one of the continent's most brutal rulers: His government "disappeared" about 3,000 of his political opponents, arrested more than 30,000, and cast away more than 200,000 others to live in exile.

But after 16 years of living without democracy, it was surprisingly hard to convince Chileans to pick another alternative. Rival anti-Pinochet parties had been feuding for years about whether a potential future new government would be pro-Western or Marxist. Many citizens were afraid to vote altogether, thinking it might cause them to be targeted, and some doubted the idea that Pinochet would honor the results of the vote.

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Augusto Pinochet. (Reuters)

In the weeks leading up to the vote, each side -- Yes" and "No" -- was given 15 minutes of TV advertising time each night. The pro-Pinochet side alternated between cloying propaganda and foreboding images warning of an apocalyptic post-Pinochet future. Meanwhile, the campaign led by a coalition of opposition parties -- the "No" -- did in fact concoct a positive, joyful ad campaign, and Chileans did, for a number of reasons, overwhelmingly vote down Pinochet.

"But what led up to that last 30 days was only the last snapshot of a very long struggle," said Ken Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute, which helped to set up election monitoring during the plebiscite.

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Genaro Arriagada, right, director of Chile's "No" campaign, speaks with Chilean opposition leader Sergio Bitar during a panel on March 26, 2013 in Washington. (Joy Asico)

I sat down with the director of the real "No" campaign, Genaro Arriagada, to talk about what life was actually like leading up to the plebiscite. Here are four surprising elements of that were left out or glossed over in the film version:

The guy who came up with the No campaign wasn't an outsider:

In the movie, the slogan the No campaign dreamt up -- La alegría ya viene ("Joy is coming") -- is ripped straight from the actual commercials the campaign ran. But the heads of the campaign didn't bring in a random local ad man to do it. Instead, American consultants helped the Chileans run focus groups, and they found a happy message resonated better than one centered on Pinochet's human rights violations.

Frank Greer, head of the political communications firm GMMB, traveled to Chile at least six times in 1987 and 1988.

"We received assistance from the Soros Foundation to hire a group of people who went to Chile to make focus groups. They proved that if you want to win, it's necessary to have a moderate message. And of course, we have some people to the far left who say, well, I don't agree with this, so they were put out of the coalition," Arriagada said.

The opposition parties were arch-rivals that had to learn to agree:

Arriagada and his colleagues worked for years to bridge differences between 17 different groups who all had visions for what Chile should be after Pinochet. Some wanted Pinochet supporters punished, but the No campaign organizers knew they could never win unless they assured regime backers of their safety after Pinochet's fall.

"Pinochet had the support of the upper class and business community. Our conviction was that if we ... put in jail or in exile the people of Pinochet, that will be the end of the country. It was necessary to have room for everybody," he said.

"This was a matter of creating tolerance between former enemies. About building a country in which you can have a place. Even if you are coming from Pinochet or other parties, we are trying to build a fatherland for all. But that moderation was not discovered in the last 30 days, or even the last year. It was a long, long road that took at least 10 years."

Some parties even suggested abstaining from the plebiscite entirely, thinking that would be the best way to signal their belief that Pinochet's government was illegitimate.

"But my recommendation in any place is that you should go to an election, even if you are defeated, you must participate," Arriagada said.

The ad wasn't the most important part:

Before voting day on Oct. 5, 1988, the No coalition led a massive grassroots effort to register 92 percent of the electorate -- a registration drive that both Wollack and Arriagada said was a turning point.

"Pinochet who had the support of all of the army and the support of the business community. We had the students, we had human rights, we had a very well-structured political parties, and we had the people in the streets in order," Arriagada said.

Chileans didn't know right away who won:

Pinochet's camp had plans to incite rioting and disorder should the "No" camp win, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency document, and President Reagan had tried to prevent that possibility, warning Chilean police to uphold the results.

"President Pinochet should also be informed that nothing could so permanently destroy his reputation in Chile and the world than for him to authorize or permit extreme violent and illicit steps which make a mockery of his solemn promise to conduct a free and fair plebiscite," the American talking points read.

The plebiscite was monitored extremely closely, with vote counters at each of the more than 10,000 polling stations. When it became obvious to Pinochet's supporters that the opposition had won, at around 7:30 that evening, the government hesitated to release the results and instead began airing cartoons on the state broadcast channels. At first, there were fears that Pinochet would not honor the results.

"And in that moment, there was a very deep split in the regime - some who wanted to recognize the defeat, and some who wanted not to recognize it," Arriagada said. Pinochet tried forcing the military to give him "extraordinary powers" to cancel the vote, but top generals refused

"At midnight, the military generals appeared on TV, and they said, they are defeated," Arriagada said. "I will say that of course we were extremely happy with this, but at the same time, it was the beginning of something that was completely unknown."

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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