Prisoner without a name
Argentine nightmare

by Hal W. Peat

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 10-11
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

The eminent publisher of a large South American newspaper opposes, on liberal principles, his country's military junta. In spite of his opposition, he manages to survive. Cocooned by his position from the growing number of arrests, disappearances, and unexplained deaths, he continues business as usual by day and socializes by night with the capital's upper crust. But when the security forces bloody his son during a demonstration and detain the boy's woman friend, the publisher realizes the full extent of the junta's repression.

Thus begins the story of Jacobo Timerman, onetime proprietor of the long established Buenos Aires daily, La Opinion, in director/producer Linda Yellen's version of this true story. The irony of the film's title quickly becomes apparent. Jacobo Timerman is a man well-known throughout Argentina, and one of the few such figures the military rulers do not touch, until he becomes involved on behalf of the truly nameless, numberless masses of Argentines who have "disappeared."

Stunned by the beating of his son, Daniel, and by the disappearance of Daniel's friend, Timerman reacts angrily. Up to this moment, the Timermans have been able to convince themselves that they are safe from personal attack by the fact of their visibility and acceptance within the traditional establishment. Timerman even believed that he had some influence within the governing military circles. But when he talks to his friend, Colonel Rossi, about the disappearance of his son's friend, the Colonel subtly implies that Timerman's criticisms of the government in La Opinion must cease once the young woman is set free. When a mother of one of the desaparecidos confronts him later, however, Timerman decides to continue publishing news of the disappearances. The authorities respond with one crude final warning: a plainclothes goon barges into Timerman's office and demands that he issue a memo halting coverage of the disappearance of government critics. Still defiant, Timerman throws the man out and vows to begin printing the names of the disappeared.

Jacobo Timerman's own descent into the netherworld of torture, degradation and isolation begins at this point. He is seized, held blindfolded for hours, and finally tortured with electric prods. His former friend, Colonel Rossi, interrogates him. When they eventually allow Risha, his wife, to visit him in his cell, he is almost unrecognizable, a broken man ready to die. Somehow, however, he slowly regains his spirit and strength, aided by a visiting rabbi and, most strangely by the constant unseen presence of his fellow prisoners. They are not only prisoners without names, but also prisoners without faces. Timerman can only glimpse their eyes, peering out of the small apertures in each cell door, but it is enough. "Tonight we conquer death," he suddenly exults. "Your eyes will always be with me." With attention growing in the international media over his disappearance, thanks to Risha's efforts to publicize his case, the authorities shift Timerman from prison cell to house arrest. This comes after a brief hearing before a military tribunal whose officer president asks such revealing questions as, "Are you a Jew?" and "Were you raised as a Zionist?" They do not, as Timerman points out in his speech to this tribunal, inquire if he is a journalist. And it was as a journalist, after all, that he was bound to print the plight of the disappeared in his newspaper.

House arrest proves to be as degrading, as psychologically horrific and tortuous in its way for the Timermans as was actual imprisonment for Jacobo. Bestial guards ransack his home, harass his wife, and refuse him communication of any kind with the outside world. Timerman sends away his two remaining sons, then finally Risha; his now empty bedroom has become his latest cell.

But events in the outside world are slowly working in his favor, though he is unaware of them. The Carter administration, aware of Timerman's case through one of its members who had once met him and been impressed by his anti-junta stance, is reviewing its renewal of military assistance to Argentina. Since human rights is a much heralded priority for the Carter administration, those with particularly grotesque records of human rights abuses are now anxious to clean up a few of the most prominent instances of such abuses. So without any more warning than when they first detained him, Timerman's captors suddenly rush him from house arrest to the airport and a waiting jet that carries him off into exile. Later, Timerman's appearance in the visitors' gallery of the U.S. Congress prompts a spontaneous ovation from the floor. He cannot, as he tells the press in conclusion, forget his former fellow victims still rotting in unknown prisons.

PRISONER WITHOUT A NAME is a ninety-minute, made for TV film, adapted from Jacobo Timerman's own book of the same title published in 1981. That it was made at all for a medium not renowned (in this country, at least) for bringing stories of a politically controversial nature to the attention of millions of prime-time viewers is interesting. That it suffers from many of the most distorting and attenuating conventions of this medium — stylistic, dramatic, and thematic — is not so remarkable, but just as sad, when one considers what a truly incisive, in-depth rendering of the Timerman affair, in all its international and political implications, might have done for an audience so largely willing to approve the current administration's "low key" human rights policy in its dealings with dictatorships. (Which is to say, tacitly endorsing abuses of human rights by refusing to voice any criticism that might upset these friendly governments.) Perhaps this is demanding too much from a 90 minute TV film; in order to delineate all the interconnections between the Timerman case and the wider machinations of U.S. foreign policy, the filmmakers could probably not have given us the individual, harrowing tale of Jacobo Timerman. Certainly, at this individual level, it succeeds fairly well. The suffering endured by Timerman during his 30 months of imprisonment is made clear enough.

Certain scenes serve superbly in evoking the Timerman's predicament. Jacobo is confronted by a woman demonstrating in a plaza whose son has been picked up and murdered. Jacobo confronts the officers, during his own hearing, with the moral and professional necessity of writing about such deaparecidos. Jacobo, with no writing materials allowed him, attempts to use his own blood as ink, but even the quick message he scratches is snatched from his bedroom prison. Liv Ullmann is particularly affecting as a bewildered but determined Risha Timerman. In one sequence following her husband's disappearance, she acts the pleasure loving, flirtatious woman with an army officer in order to wheedle Jacobo's whereabouts from the man. Later, she speaks hesitantly before a group of women at a Buenos Aires fashion show, finding the perfect metaphor when she tells them,

"I suppose human rights are just as out of date as last year's fashions."

Yet director Linda Yellen seems frequently unclear and hesitant about what to depict, and in what detail, whenever she is not focusing solely on the Timermans. Bending to the rules of small-screen drama, she sets up a jack-booted Colonel Rossi as the embodiment of all evil. Rossi torments Timerman and presses for his execution. He arrives melodramatically with a death squad at Timerman's bare apartment as the journalist takes off into exile. Just what the military junta's aims and politics are is never made clear. This blurring is most disturbing in Yellen's "happy ending": the Timermans are free and warmly received when they visit the U.S. Congress. In accordance with the "satisfying denouement" of TV docudrama, everything has "worked out" for the protagonist. Thus the film doesn't even inform us that Timerman was important in the Senate's rejection of Ernest W. Lefever as Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, nor that Timerman's stance against the Reagan "low key" policy also continued to generate much controversy around him, nor that the question of some 15,000 to 20,000 other Argentine men, women and children who have disappeared remains unresolved, nor that the complacency of the present administration remains unshaken toward foreign "friends" who brutalize their own people.

PRISONER WITHOUT A NAME provides the viewing public with at least an inkling of the effects of our overseas policies, but it doesn't provide anywhere near a complete and telling picture. In the end, it becomes like too much else that must meet the requirements of "entertainment" and "marketability": "human drama" that exists in a void apart from the social, economic and political factors to which it is actually so intimately linked.