Gael Garcia Bernal on toppling dictators and his Miss Universe dreams.
It’s no mean feat to topple a dictator, to put it mildly, especially without shedding a drop of blood. Such was the case when the Chilean dictator General Pinochet was ousted from power in a surprise referendum, which saw him lose the popular vote. The advertising campaign behind his opposition was widely recognised as having a major influence in swaying the population. The story of this campaign has been turned into an accomplished feature film by Pablo Larrain, starring the brilliant and enigmatic Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene, the advertising brains behind the campaign. NO has been nominated for an academy award for Best Foreign Film and is released in the UK on Feb 8th. We talked with Gael ahead of the release about freedom, democracy, miss universe, and why this film is so relevant today.
How important is this story in today’s climate? Do you think that the power of advertising can really bring about change? It’s good that you included these two questions in one, because they have the same answer. First of all, it shows something that very few people know about, which is how Pinochet was taken out of power. It is the only time in history that a dictator has been thrown out by democratic means. It was not only a feat for the Chilean people, it was a feat for the world. The film is seen through the eyes of the publicists who made this campaign, but I would argue, if we have to reduce it into one single sentence, the film is about the power of democracy. The publicity campaign helped people go out and vote with hope and happiness, without fear. It’s very relevant today, because nowadays we live in discontent with democracy all over the world because the concept of democracy has been perverted badly. It has been used as an excuse to make wars, it has been reduced to a very basic common denominator which is free elections, and really free elections is just one of the crutches of democracy, but there is a whole body which has to do with freedom of speech, discussion, openness, confrontation of ideas. We are realising that politicians have painted it as “If you elect me, things will change completely,” and it’s not true. The art of politics and democracy is to achieve small wins that open up for a bigger possibility. If this film is seen by any North African, they think, “this is what we are going through.”
Your character, Rene, seems to have a strong sense of ethics, but is wary about being political. Do you think this was the case in reality? Rene is a composite of two characters who were the main leaders of the publicity campaign. There’s an added element of him being in exile, which adds a strong quality to the character, like a foreigner in his own country. Rene really shows an almost shocking aspect of democracy, the feeling that you have to re-invent your motivations almost every day, you must change the opinion according to what you want to achieve, so in one scene you see him say “We’re going to take down Pinochet,” and in the other, he says “We’re going to be famous with this.” It sounds shocking to anybody with the fear that there was of Pinochet and the injustice, to say that the campaign was going to be based on happiness, it was like “what?” And then when the ball starts to roll, the character Rene is the first one to realise that it’s changing his own destiny, the destiny of Chile, he’s one of the protagonists, and not only that, he’s changing the world. I think he’s a person who is realising, “wow we’re really doing something.”
How did you get into the role, from wearing 80s clothes to finding out about the real life characters that informed your part? I visited Chile a few times before the movie to research but really it was the whole team of the movie that prepared this great textbook for me. They came up to me with an investigation that I read. And also just talking to every single person we could, because everybody had a story to tell. It’s the recent past, it’s 25 years ago. Even people that didn’t live through it, like the student movement in Chile right now had an interesting point of view because they are exercising the freedom that NO gave them but at the same time pointing out the debts of the NO campaign, saying there’s no free higher education, there are people making money out of education, it is a business with no regulation, they are questioning in a democratic way, what do we want our schools to do?
At the end of the film, for me, there was a slightly darker edge. Is this how you interpreted it? Yeah, well there is this vacuum of identity. There is this thing of “shit we did it by selling Coca Cola,” you know or the character realising “what has really changed?” Yes happiness came because Pinochet is out and that’s unquestionable. People all of a sudden were happy. It happened to me when finally the PRI were out of power in Mexico, it was like 72 years of the same political party and all of a sudden they were out and it was like wow, and it was my generation that voted for the first time. The most interesting thing is how Eugenio and Manuel, who my character is based on, celebrated. One of them watched it on TV on the sofa, he was having marital problems and he watched it on his own and fell asleep. The other, Eugenio, as soon as he heard that they had won, he got into a car early in the morning and drove for 8 or 9 hours and he stopped being a publicist. It was the ultimate publicity campaign and imagine, even though he had thrown out Pinochet, he was like “what am I going to do in my life now.” He drove for 8 hours straight to the desert in the North of Chile, and he never did publicity again. All of a sudden, when who you are opposed to disappears, there is a huge vacuum. “Who am I, what is my motivation now.” We all become these crazy actor divas, and Rene really questions this early on. I think that’s why it’s very interesting to play a character like this. And if it would have been done in Hollywood, it would have been just been the cheesiest, you know “this guy knows it all and is going to CHANGE THE WORLD.”
Finally, if you had one wish and there was a change you could make in the world right now, what would it be? It is a big one, but very broad, and it’s going to sound like Miss Universe, but it’s the lack of equality, I would erase the lack of equality.
Text: Joe Cohen