As an historian, I’m never all that surprised when fictional films don’t live up to historical reality. So I wasn’t shocked when the film No, which tells a story about the media side of the No campaign in the 1988 plebiscite in Chile, did not give credit to the social movements of the 1980s, but instead practically argued that the media shifted dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power.
Needless to say, many human rights activists and the left in Chile range on a scale from disgruntled to outrage regarding the movie. And yet some people who are active in leftist politics have recommended the film to me. It came out in Chilean theaters last September, near the anniversary of the golpe de estado. Now that it has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, discussion has started again over the film’s significance and its validity as part of Chile’s collective memory of the dictatorship.
I would argue that, at root, rather than the issue of blockbuster films distorting history, the struggle for space in collective memory is the fire that has been ignited here. The two problems are intertwined: whose version of history is more important, which narrative takes precedence, which story is the one people will remember—that is what is being debated.
Many people who have taken offense to the film participated in the social and political movements in the 1980s that led to Pinochet’s loss in the 1988 plebiscite. Afterward, during the transition to democracy, the catchphrase from the campaign, which is the feature of the movie—“la alegría ya viene (happiness is coming)—did not come true for activists. Pinochet and the military oversaw the transition, he made himself senator for life, his constitution remains in effect today (albeit with some amendments), most torturers and killers did not receive punishment, and neoliberal policies remained. State socialism did not return full-force as the left had hoped.
In that context, the activists and sympathizers who have spoken against the film feel as though, with this successful movie starring heartthrob Gael García Bernal, they are once again being marginalized from the narrative. They’re frustrated. And that’s understandable, considering that we live in an age in which the general public relies far too much on movies and television for their education, rather than cracking open a real history book.
But if you really want to watch films that don’t mess up the history of the Pinochet dictatorship, check out any of Patricio Guzman’s documentaries. If you want to see Gael García Bernal’s face for a couple of hours, and watch an entertaining work of historical fiction, check out No. But do remember that it’s historical fiction, and its purpose isn’t to tell the story of the social movements that actually did bring down Pinochet. For that story, you’ll actually need some bona-fide history.