Closed Box/Open Wound

Transitional Justice in “No” – Pablo Larraín.

“While transitional justice is normally thought of as a process of social and political transformation, repair and reconstruction, film opens a window into its emotional, human, and personal sides.” (Blum)

This is owing to its ability to visually reconstruct the past, which is often harbouring the same emotional difficulties as the present as societies take the time to reckon with the events of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. In ‘No,’ which finishes with Augusto Pinochet handing over the presidency to Patricio Aylwin, there is no representation of life after transition, yet there is the chance to understand the direction in which the film looks towards the future, and a deliberate attempt to reconstruct the release of tension which came with the plebiscite . René Saavedra, prior to presentations of his each of his videos, pleads that “today, Chile looks to the future.” In this we can understand the film to be addressing the difficult nature of transitional justice and the obstacles it faces. ‘Looking towards the future’ often has the assumed opposite action of forgetting the past, yet by following the campaigns decision to focus on happiness, and blurring this into real and unreal footage of violence, we see a more nuanced picture of truth and justice than is initially obvious. Rather than show graphic violence, the film alludes to this whilst giving a careful handling to the dialogue surrounding what to show and what to hide. It speaks to the difficulty for a society to firstly believe the full truth of human rights abuses, to reflect, and then to create a common idea of what justice would look like, how the decision-making process on the nature of the campaign captured in the film highlights the divide between national and individual justice. Also there is the visual-emotional logic of the campaign and the memory struggles within.

The decision surrounding the nature of the ‘No’ campaign is key to understanding Larrain’s conception of transitional justice. As the ‘No’ campaign initially planned to use the plebiscite as “an opportunity to condemn Pinochet’s crimes against his citizens,” Larrain focuses in on this discussion to create a separation between the idea of “making people aware,” “occupying the space opened by the dictatorship which is ours,” contrasted with René’s approach, which is fixated on a strategy to win. Whereas the film has often been taken as a crude rebuttal of capitalist society, as in Benson-Allott’s review, which argues that No “reminds its viewers that Pinochet was ousted by the very commercialism he brought into Chile,” I argue that the film highlights a less neat and cyclical aspect of justice. The decision surrounding the nature of the campaign highlights not that René’s approach is shallow or vacuous, but the different and equally legitimate processes of memory that affect at an individual and national level. The leftist members of the group want to show the human rights abuses, and feel it a disrespect, or silence, to run with a campaign which focuses on happiness. Rene does not want to show violence in the campaign, but certainly takes his work and also the ousting of Pinochet seriously as we follow him caught up in scenes of violence throughout. For justice to really be felt, the film shows that both of these processes need to take place. People need to understand the extent of violence that the state has legitimised itself on, and they also need to look to the future. René offers a universal version of justice, one which will articulate itself through victory, and thus through the official channels where legitimate action can begin to take place. However, in these dialogues we see that this process can also isolate, people can still feel ‘sold out,’ if they don’t have agency over their version of justice. As Gready argues, culture can “ask the difficult questions,” in order to foster an environment which can “nudge empowerment beyond the lone voice to ownership and control of agency,” and it is the focus on this decision-making process, extended generously and allowed room to breathe by Larraín, which articulates the split between individual and national processes of memory and justice. Simply, ‘No’ challenges our understanding of the idea of truth-telling as a universally transformative procedure. It raises a difficult issue that people may be more willing to continue living under trauma than to lose ownership of their trauma, and complicates a shared understanding of justice.


René relates the idea of memory struggles to the audience during the decision-making progress, by reminding his friends that people will associate the ‘No’ campaign with queues, violence and socialism. In doing so, it alludes to Stern’s conceptualisation of the junta modernisation process as “memory as salvation,” which rescued the nation from this period of uncertainty and chaos, and made inseparable “the connection between a frightful past and the glow of a bright present-and-future.” The fictional ‘No’ campaign followed the actual campaign’s understanding of the situation in Chile, seeing that fear was the greatest obstacle to overcome in translating would-be voters to tangible votes. The differences between the two campaigns highlighted their differing understanding of what Chilean voters would look for to resuscitate the nation. The most arresting footage of the ‘No’ campaign merges both informational and reassuring output with inspirational and affirming messages that seek to undermine the ‘war framework’ of the ‘Yes’ campaign. As such, the campaign achieved a style which could “expose the hidden truths of the “other” Chile, but not in the graphic style that provokes angry confrontation or fear of confrontation.” Both the actual ‘No’ and Larrain’s ‘No’ take on this task of confronting the past without graphic representation, and in this sense speak to a much larger part of the transitional justice process. Truth as the requirement to understand and seek justice is achieved by diverse and challenging activities, and as such the campaign managed to reconcile between understanding tragic events and moving forward towards happiness by making the focus of the campaign this dilemma between the two. In each of the clips, whether they focus on a positive or negative aspect of this process, they assess the larger picture of how society should come to terms with itself by uprooting the past from the fear that had paralysed people. Central to the idea is tension, in the struggling couple, or the man who cannot speak, it is anyone and everyone who has suffered. The tension cannot solely be resolved through blanket rejection of the past; it has to be through simultaneous understanding and pushing towards the present and future which reject any continuation of that damaging past. The role that film, both real and unreal, plays in this process is that it can simultaneously articulate a vision of the past which is embedded into the future, it can re-contextualise violence into something understood and rejected, so that justice is not retribution but reconciliation, or the understanding that the promotion of human rights is beneficial to the entire nation.

Although the ending does not engage with Pinochet’s still entrenched power or the many constitutional efforts to limit the effectiveness of the incumbent government, it does highlight an anxiety surrounding the win. Rene is pictured leaving a large celebration, seeing those who he worked with take interviews and relish their success, yet his expression is cautious. As Jose Tomas Urrutia declares that “on this long night, without a drop of blood being shed, we have defeated this cruel dictatorship, by simply shouting loud and clear: No!” the mood is one of a party, yet we watch it through the eyes of the only person who isn’t celebrating. There is the same tension between the universal and individual level of justice that permeated the decision-making process in his expression: now that it is over, how should I feel? It is in these scenes where the decision to use the camera aesthetic of the time is most effective, capturing the anxiety that comes with such defining and almost unbelievable moments that seemed far less inevitable than film can ever express. The party scene, followed by the skateboarding scene, then a return to work, with this blurred aesthetic between fiction and reality, are an expression of the disbelief of the world changing overnight. In this we see what Benson-Allott described as “the unstable boundaries between objects and color fields [which] bespeak the messy proximities and imbrications of character and environment,” in other words; reality and fiction can inform each other to create new meaning. Once again René offers that “today, Chile looks to the future,” yet this time there is more conviction. Each time he argued that it was “in line with the current social context,” as a justification for what people are ready to see. “They are ready for this type of communication” finally means that they are ready for this level of understanding, and even ready to reckon with themselves. Film has the ability, and this film specifically with the aesthetic does, to convey complex truth-telling, which whilst reaffirming many hallmarks of the traditional process of transitional justice, has the ability to still ask questions at the personal level. Even the fictional hero may not find happiness blending back into the world that he has changed.

In conclusion, ‘No’ offers a multi-purposeful vision of transitional justice which seeks to affect at the personal and universal level by offering a response to fear that had characterised Chilean society in the years before the plebiscite. As Stern notes, that memory had been thought of as a “closed box,” or even an “open wound,” to create a climate for change was extremely difficult. The film deals with this by creating an open and lasting conversation surrounding the responses we can have towards atrocities and human rights abuses. In its handling of the decision-making process for the ‘No’ campaign it highlights the disconnect which can live between national and individual justice, and in doing so adds to our understanding of what justice can mean at all levels. It similarly captures the struggle for memory to become an understanding rather than an outright rejection of the past, by focusing in on the tension which characterised the actual ‘No’ campaign. Film can articulate new types of truth from the past as well as new versions of the future for people to believe in, and this film with its mixture of archival and original footage manages to explain both of these phenomena at once. This mixture also allows for an understanding of the past as a continuous actor on the present and future, constantly re-informing the process of creating a society that can reckon with violence and turbulence. Overall, the film is a rejection of fear, which offers no real satisfactory moment but conveys a constant ambition to work towards the conditions for justice.


No, 2012. Directed by Pablo Larraín. USA: Network Releasing.

Benson-Allott, C. (2013) ‘An Illusion Appropriate to the Conditions, No (Pablo Larraín 2012)’ Film Quarterly Vol 66, No 3 (Spring 2013) pp61-63.

Blum, C. (2014) Visions of Justice and Accountability: Transitional Justice and Film chapter in TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY: BEYOND OUTREACH, Social Science Research Council: New York.

Gready, P. (2008) Culture, Testimony, and the Toolbox of Transitional Justice, Peace Review, 20:1, 41-48.

Stern, S. (2006) Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988. Duke University Press.

Photos: The Reel Story, Coutausse

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