Protests in the Chilean capital of Santiago turned violent Sunday when loyalists of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet turned up in great numbers to support the premiere of a documentary that portrays the dictator as a national hero victimized by unscrupulous leftists. While authorities expected clashes, according to the Associated Press, they resorted to force to separate the former leader’s supporters from anti-Pinochet Chileans outraged by a movie that lionizes a man widely considered a torturer and killer.
These heated freedom-of-speech debates certainly aren’t unique to Chile, even if those in America generally play out in the media rather than on the streets. Filmmakers have had a field day with cinematic treatments of polarizing leaders in recent years, from Eugene Jarecki and Alex Gibney’s “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” to Oliver Stone’s “W.” and Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon.”
HBO has been building its own political library with films such as the fictionalized recent histories “Game Change” and “Recount;” “41,” a documentary about President George H.W. Bush, will have its premiere Thursday. Citizens United’s controversial “Hillary: The Movie” even led to a hugely impactful Supreme Court case.
But the conflict in Chile is a different sort entirely, fueled by easily recharged passions scarred by a long, brutal history — a history not without its American element, given how Pinochet came to power in 1973. In that context, a purported nonfiction film has great power and symbolism, including the potential to cause pain anew.
There’s an interesting counterpoint in Pablo Larrain’s award-winning “No,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (Read Eric Kohn’s review.) The docudrama stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the advertising executive hired to spearhead the ultimately successful public campaign to defeat Pinochet in a referendum in 1988. “No” — starting with its title — carries its own punch-to-the-gut symbolic weight, since it shows how ordinary citizens employed nonviolent means in a dangerous atmosphere to finally topple a leader.
Participant Media co-financed the picture, which Sony Pictures Classics picked up for U.S. distribution. (Participant is also behind Diego Luna’s “Chavez” biopic, currently shooting in Mexico.) While no release date has been scheduled for “No,” the companies are looking to a fall festival run followed by a theatrical rollout in February or March, according to one person with knowledge of the plan.
With recent events in Chile, perhaps the filmmakers could move up their timetable and get “No” into theaters in South America right away. Sometimes a single word can have great impact.