Jacobo Timerman's story of an Argentine prison
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.)Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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