JOSÉ MUJICA – The Story of a Giant

He is José Mujica the star of Venice 75. Completely removed from the blander canons of fame standards of celebrity, José Mujica has become, against his will, a world celebrity, a giant. Two works have been dedicated to the former President of Uruguay in the 75th edition of the Venice Film Festival. In a continuum they portray his incredible life.

A TWELVE YEAR NIGHT by Alvaro Brechner, a harrowing reconstruction of José Mujica’s years in prison, and a documentary, EL PEPE, UNA VIDA SUPREMA by Emir Kusturica, a testimony to the man and politician, the intimate story of his life, from imprisonment to the presidency until his return to normality. And as is well known, he, the most atypical president of the world, never left this behind during the five years he led Uruguay.

LA NOCHE DE 12 AÑOS is relentlessly emotional, empathetic, chilling. Cathartic. Set in Uruguay, during the seventies (in 1973, to be exact), against the backdrop of the military dictatorships that infested the South American continent, the film chronicles one of the most dramatic and little known cases of political violence  within the military dictatorships that, at that time, overran the South American continent.

José Mujica was a Tupamaro, a leading figure in that Marxist-Leninist-Castroist movement that in the late 1960s had created the first urban guerrilla strategy in South America. Bank robbing, kidnappings (the best known was the British Ambassador, Geoffrey Jackson), killings (including Daniel Mitrione, an American security agent). A systematic assault against the state seeking to install a society freed from hunger, injustice and inequality.

The history of the Tupamaros and their political wing, the National Liberation Movement (MLN), has been largely forgotten. A TWELVE YEAR NIGHT has the merit of putting the spotlight on a dramatically true story which the Uruguayans themselves have never come to terms with.

In 1972, the Tupamaros were completely crushed by the military dictatorship established under the semi-coup d’état (President Juan María Bordaberry remained formally in power) of June 1973. The National Security Council, the actual governing body of the country, gave free rein to the military repression.

In 1976, Uruguay had the highest rate of political prisoners of any other country in the world compared to the total population. Over 2,000 people, political activists and sympathizers of the Tupamaros ended up in jail. Many disappeared. Torture, drugs, isolation, weapons and techniques of repression up until that moment unthinkable.

One night in  September 1973, José Mujica, who had been captured and arrested along with some comrades the year before, was taken from his cell, blindfolded and secretly transported to a hidden place. With ‘Pepe’ Mujica, there were ‘Rosco’ Mauricio Rosencof and ‘Nato’ Fernández Huidobro.

That night was to be only the first in a long series of transfers and moves that  the three prisoners underwent for twelve years, until 1980 when a plebiscite decreed the beginning to the end of military power,  paving the way for the return of democracy. The “long night” for Mujica, Rosco and Ñato ended in 1985 when an amnesty for political prisoners was granted. A trial for the prosecution of the perpetrators has never been carried out.

Visually striking and with a thrilling narrative, Alvaro Brechner is excellent at conveying the sense (also chronological) of those twelve years, dark and brutal. In complete isolation (except for the company of mice) in pits and damp underground holes, very often in darkness, without food or water. For a year, they were not allowed to wash themselves. To go to toilet, only once a day.

Isolation, torture, physical and mental deprivation being pushed beyond all limits of human endurance and survival. A diabolical script meticulously enacted, a macabre as much as exemplary experiment.

«Since we cannot kill you, we are going to drive you crazy», the military chief contemptuously hisses.

The killings of all or almost all 3,000 Tupamaros prisoners  would have created an uproar, even in the climate of military terror prevailing in the country. Madness and disappearances (the infamous desapariciones in the Mar de la Plata) were more discreet and effective procedures throughout South America in those horrible years. Years of “beastly” survival for José Mujica, Mauricio Rosencof and Fernández Huidobro.

Yet they resisted, survived, in body and soul. Touching on flashbacks from their memories, fragments of their previous lives when they were still “human”, before imprisonment, before affections, faces and smells became silent companions in the putrid cell of that moment.

Fragments of a life to which they desperately clung to in order to stay alive, antidotes to insanity, like the smell of paper that Nato , got from a guard in return for writing letters for him (he had a strong literary talent), or playing  a chess game with oneself or the short and rhythmic beats of fingers on the wall to communicate with whoever was on the other side.

During the long years of detention, Mujica suffered from frequent hallucinations, voices, visions, sounds roaring incessantly in his brain. He was obsessed with being secretly bugged in his cell. The only contact Mujica had with the outer world was the two visits that his mother managed to get throughout all the years of his detention. Or hostage-taking, we should say.

«I went seven years without being allowed to read a book», Mujica recounts. «[…] We had created the first urban warfare, before us guerrilla warfare was just rural, we brought it to the city, we were the first», El Pepe continues proudly sipping his mate, the traditional South American herbal infusion.

The Tupamaros were granted amnesty in 1985, the National Liberation Movement was politically restored only in May 1989. In the same year, it formed an alliance with the extreme left forces of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) to run in the  elections.

In 1995, Mujica entered Parliament and, in 2004, under Tabaré Vazquez’s presidency (the first left-wing president) he became Minister of Agriculture, then in 2009, at 74 years of age and with a turnout of  90%, Mujica was elected President of Uruguay.

The years of his presidency («Fratricidal because they went too quickly»), his farewell speech to the nation («I’m not leaving, I’m coming»), his life on the tractor, his love for flowers, his projects, his memories, his regrets (not having children) all collected by Emir Kusturica in EL PEPE, A VIDA SUPREMA, a personal story and portrait of the former President of Uruguay.

El Pepe, as all Uruguayans call him, has always declared that he would not be the man he is today, if he had not lived the experience of prison, torture, the strenuous struggle for survival. He even jokes about.  Punta Carretas, the first prison in which he was detained, has been transformed into a shopping center in the capital. «It would have been different, well … another thing.»

It would not have become the man he is today without that “long night”. Mujica, the President who gave up the pomp and splendour of the presidential palace of Suárez y Reyes to stay with his wife, Lucía Topolansky, former revolutionary militant herself, now a senator, in their small and very modest country estate in Rincón del Cerro. The President who gave his salary to poverty reduction programs, who refused to wear a tie. Always, whether in the presence of Barack Obama or Pope Francis.

The President who legalized marijuana use, abortion up to 12 weeks (it is forbidden in most of South America) and same-sex marriages, the man who gave speeches on happiness at international forums but who was careful to tap into the global markets, to the world of companies and foreign investors. A former Marxist guerrilla, who turned a deaf ear to the siren songs of Chavez’s new Bolivarianism and Communism  of the 21st century.

The President who strongly contributed to making Uruguay one of the most advanced and liberal countries on the continent, attracting investments and halving poverty, transforming the country from an importer to a net renewable energy exporting nation.

Muijca fills the screen with his uniqueness even before that of his impressive physical presence. A wise man, a fighter, an idealist, a man who changed his country without changing himself, adapting the tools of democracy to the ideals of social justice, equality and  the fight against poverty.

«If the Social Democrats had been born in a small country, it would certainly have been Uruguay. The Latin American Switzerland, they called us, until the fifties it was so, until the United States backed the Condor Plan. […].»

The Condor operation, a sort of Schengen area of repression, a regional cooperation network between the South American military dictatorships to carry out the repression of political opponents without territorial and judicial limits.

El Pepe does not regret having robbed banks holding a 45 in his hand. «What is worse, to found a bank or rob it?»

After all, Bertold Brecht had already asked this question.

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