In 1988, 15 years after a bloody coup brought him to power, the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet announced a referendum that was supposed to legitimise and extend his rule. Instead, the people voted him out. Now, in Chile's first film to be nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, No, Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal plays the leader of a team of advertising men whose populist campaign for the “no” vote helped to bring about Pinochet's fall from power.
A former student at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, Bernal first came to people's attention outside Mexico in the hard-hitting drama Amores Perros and lusty road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. No is not his first political film. He's played Che Guevara twice, in the TV miniseries Fidel and movie The Motorcycle Diaries, while his directorial debut, Deficit, explored the divisions of class and race in contemporary Mexico. To date, he has steered clear of big Hollywood films. But this is about to change when he takes the lead in 20th Century Fox's post-apocalyptic blockbuster, Zorro Reborn.
Here, he discusses No and the dirty business of democracy.
Can you compare what happened in Chile to the Arab Spring?
Gael Garcia Bernal: Yes. Why I think the film is timeless is because of the involvement of a person in the game of democracy. And the game of democracy is a very disappointing one, if you take it seriously.
Gael Garcia Bernal:You have to accept the fact that there are going to be people who vote different than you, and that is really frustrating. Especially when somebody votes for an idiot. That is the first kind of disappointment. But the other one becomes a long line of disappointments, because democracy deals with pamphlets, with publicity, with one-liners, with a very superficial kind of conversation about the future. I think our involvement nowadays with democracy has this kind of ambiguous feeling, because it doesn't require your complete involvement as it would do in an armed revolution, for example, where you're either on one side or the other, and you can't be in the middle.
Does No say anything about this?
Gael Garcia Bernal:What I take from this movie is that if you see democracy as something a bit less serious than what it seems to be, you get more out of it and you enjoy it even more, and you don't suffer such disappointment.
if you see democracy as something a bit less serious than what it seems to be, you get more out of it
You were a nine year old in Mexico when the vote happened. Did you know anything about it at the time?
Gael Garcia Bernal:Well I grew up with exiles from all over Latin America that came to Mexico because Mexico was a place that would harbour the dissidents of the dictatorships, as well as other countries in Europe. So I grew up with kids whose parents were involved in something and all of a sudden were living there and became Mexican.
Your fictionalised character in No, Renee Saavedra, has actually come to Chile from Mexico. How does that inform the film?
Gael Garcia Bernal:Although it's not seen in the movie, we can say he becomes a publicist because he lived in Mexico, and Mexico was far more cosmopolitan and much more modern than Chile in those days. Mexico was like this place between the United States but at the same time incredibly Latin American, and very cosmopolitan, and Chile didn't have an outside world, you know?
Did filming No in Chile give you a new perspective on the history?
Gael Garcia Bernal:Meeting exiles in Mexico, you got a sense of the pain that the military coup [that overthrew Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power in 1973] provoked. Going to Chile, you see that the pain is still present. It's a pain that will take many years to exorcise, and to find any comfort or justice around. So that is something that I sensed when I got there. It was still very much in the skin of everybody.
You see that the pain from Pinochet is still present in Chile. It's a pain that will take many years to exorcise, and to find any comfort or justice around.
Did doing this also bring up feelings of your involvement in the Zapatista demonstrations in Mexico?
Gael Garcia Bernal:No, Saavedra is a foreigner who is at the same time a stranger; he's a character who is alienated a little bit from the place where he is from, a bit existentialist. It is a different involvement that I had when I was a kid. Then you were completely passionate with the hopes. We were wanting to stop the war, basically, and there was no ambiguity in that. We demonstrated and it was a clear goal. And in this case the character is conflicted.”
Renee is an amalgamation of several characters, some of whom actually appear in the film.
Gael Garcia Bernal:What's interesting is that Saavedra is like a mix of three characters, or two characters mainly, Jose Manuel Salcedo and Eugenio Garcia, and these guys played the heads of the campaign of the “Yes” campaign. It is what theatre ultimately does: it is a therapeutic process because the survivors that were the main people that caused this election to be won are portraying the other guys in the film, and what's great is they do it with a certain light-heartedness, to reconcile with the past. A lot of people that are involved with the film did this, and it was a great experience and lovely.
Did they think they had a chance of winning?
Gael Garcia Bernal:No. Salcedo would tell me stuff like, 'I would be very nervous handing in the tape, because I never knew if they were actually going to show it.' Every day they thought, 'They're going to censor us. They're going to take us out. The election is rigged.' They were afraid they were going to disappoint everyone, and themselves as well, because they thought that the election was completely fixed. But it was wonderful when they won.
What happened when they realised they had actually won?
Gael Garcia Bernal:How they celebrated was very interesting. When it was achieved, they were very alone. This guy Garcia, he was a publicist and he had a company, for some reason he took a car and started to drive 400 km north to a desert in Chile, and three days after he sold his company and stopped doing publicity.
No is out now