Jacobo Timerman's story of an Argentine prison

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In these days of short electronic memory, it's rare that a television film manages to create an indelible impression in the collective mind of its viewers. In 1980 such a film was ''Playing for Time,'' in which Vanessa Redgrave made her controversial appearance as a concentration camp victim. Many of those who saw it insist they can never forget it. (Those who did not see it have another chance, since it is being rerun on CBS next Tuesday, from 8 to 11 p.m.)

Now, Linda Yellen, the same producer, is presenting another memorable dramatized film, one that is bound to be etched for a long time in the consciousness of viewers: Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (NBC, Sunday, May 22, 9-11 p.m.). This week she arranged for me to see the first rough cut in advance of normal critics' screenings, because she is afraid the film will air unnoticed, since it's programmed opposite Alexander Cohen's much-heralded ''Parade of Stars'' on ABC.

The film is based upon Mr. Timerman's widely acclaimed but controversial book which detailed his ghastly experiences in Argentine jails, where he was imprisoned after his newspaper took up the cause of Argentina's 30,000 desaparecidos - prisoners who had simply disappeared. Only recently the Argentine military government issued a statement that these desaparecidos should be considered dead. It has also been suggested by some in the military junta that there should be clemency for those in government responsible for the disappearances.

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But the constantly demonstrating ''Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo'' are not about to allow the guilty to escape punishment. And neither will Jacobo Timerman allow this to happen. This film, in which he cooperated fully, is his testament to the invincibility of human dignity, a natural television follow-up to his published cry of protestation. As a counteroffensive weapon, it is even more effective than the book.

Although the book was basically a diary of the prison days, this TV film delves deeper into the private life of the Argentine publisher, concentrating most of the time on the effect his actions had on his wife and three sons. While in the book Mr. Timerman seemed to be obsessed with what he saw as Argentine anti-Semitism, in the film the anti-Semitism is clearly a ploy of the military government in its attempt to find a ''Zionist plot'' to take over Patagonia, which they hoped would make him contemptible in the eyes of the silent Argentine public.

While there are a few scenes of torture, the film is more an exaltation of survival, an uplifting tale of the nobility of the individual in society. The delicate relationship between husband and wife, played with heartbreaking persuasiveness by Roy Scheider and Liv Ullmann as Mr. and Mrs. Timerman, strengthens under adversity, only to be strengthened further in freedom.

''Jacobo'' (pronounced Hah-coh'-boh), produced, directed, and co-written by Miss Yellen, is not a perfect film. Too often it smacks of political urgency rather than literary polish. At moments it falls into the simplistic expository pattern of so many television ''docudramas.'' But through the skill of Scheider and Ullmann, in combination with the proven know-how of Yellen, the film surmounts the difficulties of intertwining complex political problems with basic human relationships. What evolves is a soaring drama about the inevitable victory of the spirit of freedom.

At a time when the US government is reportedly considering the foreign-aid and arms-sale re-certification of the current Argentine government, ''Jacobo Timerman'' could prove to be a factor. Some Americans who view this electronic cry of protest might themselves protest any attempt to further legitimize a government apparently guilty of such violations of human rights. Both Timerman and Yellen hope this proves to be the case.

As Timerman says to reporters in the final scene: ''There are many many other men and women who are being imprisoned around the world today because of their beliefs. There is so much that is good and beautiful around us. But why is it that when we are faced with something ugly, our first inclination is to turn away, to be silent? We must hold our ground. These imprisoned ones can now only dream of freedom. But once you have seen them as I have seen them, you cannot turn away, you cannot be silent. We cannot be silent. . . .'' Chat with producer Yellen

Those who might mistake Miss Yellen's blond femininity for weakness are wrong. Protesters of her casting of anti-Zionist Vanessa Redgrave in ''Playing for Time'' discovered that Miss Yellen stood firm, insisting that an actor's politics had nothing to do with an actor's talent. Miss Redgrave, of course, eventually won an Emmy for her performance, as did the film itself.

She understands politics well enough, however, to have arranged for a showing of her new program last Wednesday for Congress in Washington, a screening in the Washington area for several hundred survivors of imprisonment in Argentina, and a screening in New York next Monday for the ''Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.'' But she's also enough of a dedicated, nonpolitical filmmaker to make certain the film, which will be shown in theaters in Europe, would have its premiere at the current Cannes Film Festival in France.

Says Miss Yellen, ''Timerman's first book (his second concerned Israel) was very much misunderstood. It was written by a man who had gone through a terrible ordeal. I believe if he wrote it today, it would be a different book. What happened to him happened not because he is Jewish. It could have happened to any man, any woman, any person of conscience, who felt they had to speak out against what was happening.

''I was interested in more than the story of the incarceration. So I went to talk to him and his family, because I wanted to find out what makes a man who has everything going for him risk his life and his family and his fortune. I learned that he simply could not bear to see the suffering of other people. I traveled to Israel three times, talked to him here and there, interviewed his two younger sons, who live here, and also his wife. I had over 100 hours of taped interviews, from which we selected some scenes which had been described by several members of the family. The oldest son, who served in the Israeli war in Lebanon for a while and refused to return to the front, is in jail in Israel for that refusal to serve.''

Miss Yellen says she was deeply moved when Timerman told her that working with her on the film had caused some changes in his thinking. ''When he got out of jail, he didn't talk about it to the family at first. He didn't want them to know the extent of his suffering. And they in turn spared him the details of what they had gone through. In the course of making the movie, each heard what the others had to say. They said it was enlightening. Timerman even hinted that maybe if he had known what it meant in terms of the family's ordeal, he might have done things differently.''

Timerman, now a resident of Israel, has written a book very critical of the Israeli incursion in Lebanon. ''Arthur Miller has described him as a Jewish Thomas Paine,'' Miss Yellen says. ''Everywhere he goes he is welcomed at first. But then he becomes a gadfly, questioning, criticizing so much that some people want to throw him out of the country. But that's the way he is, always looking for ways to improve things.''

What does Miss Yellen hope ''Jacobo Timerman'' will accomplish?

She blushes just a bit. ''I don't want to sound grandiose, but when we finished 'Playing for Time' I thought it had all ended in 1945. As I told you, I'm not a political person. But when I read Timerman's book I knew it hadn't ended at all. The struggle, the passions, the evils, have not changed. I thought if we could only inform people, we might actually save lives. I decided that if I could take the facts and figures and reduce them to a personal story of love and conviction and triumph over evil, some people who view it may say to themselves: 'That could have been me and my family! What can I do about it?'

''My only hope for this film is that the American public will respond by watching carefully how our government now deals with the Argentine junta, the men responsible for Timerman's ordeal. They are still in power.''

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