A Place in the Nation: Nationhood in Larraín's NO (2013)

Curator's Note

Pablo Larraín’s film No (2012) generated intense interest in Chile and abroad for its treatment of television advertising in Pinochet’s 1988 plebiscite defeat. The film is now central to “the memory wars” in Chile (Stern 2010). Debate has focused on the relationships between film narrative and history, and between the cheerful campaign and dismal present. My video essay instead examines the rival narratives of national peoplehood reconstructed in Larraín’s movie. The film’s No campaign questions the economic and security benefits claimed by the regime, recovers the metaphor of the nation as a family, and celebrates horizontal equality.  Although Larraín’s dark comedy critiques the present, NOalso reconstructs two deeply felt, competing visions of national solidarity from the plebiscite.

The challenge of this video essay and research project has been to situate my argument – that the film re-presents two rival visions of Chile as a national political community – in relation to the outpouring of commentary, scholarship, and interviews about the movie.

NOhas received two very different critical receptions, historical and aesthetic, respectively. The historical critiques mostly pertain to the omissions of the film and suggest that its narrative misrepresents what actually happened or exaggerates the importance of the television campaign to the plebiscite victory (Rohter 2013). Some charge that, because the film puts an individual, apolitical, affluent, cynical ad-man at the center of the campaign, NOprovides a neoliberal account of Pinochet’s defeat (Fuentes 2012; Sanchez 2012).

But Larraín, in interviews, and expert reviewers claim that the focus on capitalist marketing techniques is a strength (Palacios 2012; Howe 2014). The anomie of the protagonist and his cynical adaptation of neoliberal advertising techniques to politics reflect the hollowness of Chile’s transition to democracy. The film provokes viewers to think critically about Chile’s political and economic status, and how dominant the neoliberal economic system, nurtured by the dictatorship, remains.

I’ve worked to reconcile my viewing of the movie with the emergent consensus in the academic literature that the film is a satire of the transition that mocks Chile’s failure to replace neoliberal capitalism with social democracy (Dzero 2013; Bongers 2014; Howe 2016).

I began this project by sharing NO with two of my nations and nationalism seminars and drafting an article manuscript drawing on theoretical sources on the political sociology of nationalism. A first edit of the video essay with Sam Wolk in 2016 juxtaposed the competing stories of the nation as a family and the top-down and bottom up anthems from the movie.

Both critics who think that Larraín is in thrall to neoliberalism and those who see him as a social critic accept at face value that the movie reconstructs the television campaign as hollow. Yet, some 30 percent of NOdraws selectively, from the campaigns’ original footage, providing a rich interpretation of the content and substance of both.

I argue that NOis a film about history and memory that indicts the history of the present, without rejecting the past wholesale. There are multiple reasons why the No campaign won, and Pinochet was toppled. The emergent academic consensus is that television was necessary, but not sufficient, cause for the surprise defeat of the regime (Hirmas 1989, 1993; Boas 2015). Larraín uses mise-en-scène elaborately to persuade his audience that the ideological and stylistic choices of the NO campaign contributed to that victory (Bongers 2014). But his selective, partial reconstruction of the campaigns also persuades that the NO side told better stories about Chile as a nation and offered better content than the regime.

Two ideas from the study of the political sociology of nationalism are germane for understanding the film. First, as Craig Calhoun argues, nationalism is a discursive framework, and a key dimension of nationalism is ongoing evaluation of the condition of the nation (Calhoun 1997). In NO, the plebiscite campaign offered an opportunity for the regime and its critics to present competing evaluations of Chile. The regime sought to present a positive image of “Un país ganador, (A Winning country)” based on economic and material progress, and political order and stability, since 1973. The NO campaign contested the regime’s economic triumphalism with stories of mass poverty, and questioned the greatness of Chile provided by the military with short films on police violence. 

Second, political order, according to theorist Rogers Smith, is maintained through stories of peoplehood, in addition to force and material benefits (Smith 2003). Those legitimation stories can highlight economic and political benefits, but also include ethically constitutive stories providing higher justifications for attachment than material self-interest. In the movie, the plebiscite is a constitutive moment in which the people force their way back into politics and the question of who and what constitutes the people is central to debates and contestation.

The final edit of the video essay is prefaced by a long introduction that illustrates the devices and motifs that Larraín skillfully employs in the film to make it a dark comedy, including the many fashionable 1980s toys, gadgets and technology the protagonist owns. NOis shot on u-matic video using re-built low-resolution tube cameras to integrate the original contemporary footage into the film. This introduction is followed by my visual reconstruction of the political philosophies of the two campaigns as represented in Larraín’s film.

Biographies

Niall Ó Murchú is associate professor of international studies and political economy at Fairhaven College, Western Washington University (WWU). He has published on split labor markets in Northern Ireland, Chicago, and Johannesburg, and on comparative historical analysis. His teaching includes course on Nations and Nationalism and Middle East Studies, with the latter recently focusing on Palestinian film. His current research projects focus on film and nationalism, and on labor market stratification in World War II.

Mark Miller is the Media Manager at Fairhaven College, WWU and a lecturer in Communication Studies where he teaches digital video editing. He is an accomplished videographer.

Sam Wolk graduated with degrees in Philosophy and Film Studies from Fairhaven College, WWU. He works as the operations manager at the School of Visual Concepts, Seattle and worked previously as the operations manager at The Seattle Cinerama. He also makes how films.

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