As far as sacred democratic moments go, the 1988 plebiscite ranks unrivalled in Chilean history. The non-violent triumph of the "no" option by 55.9%, which meant the end of the Pinochet dictatorship after more than 15 years, was a magical era for most of the country, one in which idealism proved to be stronger than fear.
For those in the majority, it was a plain choice between good and evil in the face of human rights violations; and its ethical dimension only grew bigger as years went by and Pinochet's crimes became more established. This feeling of moral righteousness was summarized a few days after the referendum by a famous newspaper headline: "WE WON THE BATTLE WITH A PENCIL!"
Predictably, the fact that the first movie on the referendum was centered on a fictional publicist of the "No"'s famed television campaign (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal) raised more than a few eyebrows. The Oscar-nominated film has been accused of distorting history and of minimizing the role of politicians and citizens in the epic victory. Yet to its director, Pablo Larraín, these reactions came as anything but a surprise.
"We could have adopted many points of view," said Larraín, 36, on the phone from Chile. "We could have told the story from the perspective of the politicians, who worked hard for many years toward this triumph, or the people of Chile, who were the ones who actually defeated Pinochet. But we thought that taking the perspective of the publicist was where there was a sharper edge, where we could develop the most subversive exercise."
After the film became an Academy Award contender in the "Foreign Language Film" category, his approach gained more traction. "I feel that there's a conflict with fiction in Chile," Larraín said of his detractors in a tone that is mildly professorial. "Every time we see ourselves on screen, there are groups who want to legitimize an ideological perspective about what happens in that film. That is History's role. At best, what this movie does is a reflection on what took place."
The most surprising aspect of the backlash against the film's alleged historical inaccuracies is that its blur of fiction and history is precisely what makes the movie work. Yes, Larraín's decision to shoot with an obsolete U-matic video camera allowed him to seamlessly jump in and out of archival footage, creating the illusion that his fictional images are closer to a documentary. But the beauty of his trick is in its transparency. Instead of trying to fool you, he invites you in on the magic: in several sections he uses an actor or politician in 2012 before cutting to the younger, 1988 version of themselves. The result is part nostalgia, part commentary on the power of visual language, in storytelling.
"I do believe that the publicists played a very important role in Pinochet's defeat," added Larraín in reference to the 15-minute television slot that included a famous anthem and a rainbow-themed logo and is at the center of the plot. "They catalyzed things that were up in the air. If it weren't for them, we might have not had the same result."