BAFICI - Messenger on a White Horse director Jayson McNamaraFriday, April 21, 2017
Cox film makes big-screen
Just a week before the sold-out World Première of Messenger on a White Horse, director Jayson McNamara spoke to the Herald in a telephone interview from New Zealand where he was starting to prepare for the documentary’s screening at the Bafici film festival. Not only is the film’s release a first for McNamara but also for the Buenos Aires Herald’s former Editor-in Chief Bob Cox, as it’s the first documentary to be released about his experience heading the small English-language newspaper during the last military dictatorship.
In an hour-long interview, McNamara — who is also a former Herald reporter — explained what inspired him to make the documentary, the long arduous process it took to develop it and why the story of Cox’s experience confronting the dictatorship is still relevant today.
What made you decide to do this documentary?
I began to learn more about its history during the last military dictatorship when I started working at the Herald in October, 2013. One of the first things I did was to see if any audiovisual material or documentaries had been produced about the story or about former Herald editor Bob Cox, and to my surprise there hadn’t been. I starting thinking about the prospect of producing it myself, I spoke to a few people, and by January 2014 I got a team together and we started to plan.
What do you find in the Herald’s history that is so inspiring?
First of all, I think the story is epic, almost hard to believe. It is a reflection of Argentina in general. There are so many complex aspects to the story — like many stories in this country —that it really only could have happened in Argentina. I was blown away by the contrast between what I saw as Bob’s bravery and the magnitude of the danger he was exposed to. It was fascinating to see that he had lived to tell his story. Then, as I started to meet the people who once worked at the Herald during those times, the Grandmothers and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the survivors and other people who were affected by the dictatorship, the project took on a more emotional and personal component.
Did you come across any surprises during your research?
There are a couple of cases that I think are quite incredible. One of them is (former Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo President) Chicha Mariani's. Her whole life experience still blows me away; it was as a real honour to interview her for the film. I think her story kind of epitomises the very worst of the dictatorship. The other is the Massacre of the Pallottine priests in Belgrano. There are a lot of little anecdotes and cases that within a broader context really surprised me; I never imagined how extreme the terror had been.
And in terms of the Herald and Bob himself, I came across something quite unexpected. I had been at (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo founding line member) Nora Cortiñas’ house and she highlighted how the Herald had used certain terminology to refer to the Montoneros and ERP (political groups that had militant urban guerrilla factions) which she and other Mothers found offensive. That surprised me. I never imagined that there would be any tension between the Mothers and the Herald. It also opened up a different path of investigation in trying to understand the story, looking at things like the stigmatisation of the disappeared ones, the ways the media was trying to legitimise what was happening and so help mainstream society look the other way and justify their indifference towards victims and their relatives. And I think that this is still happening in Argentina.
How do you reconcile this in your documentary?
It was one of the biggest challenges for us, whether to explore this in detail. I think it was important not to put the Herald or Bob on a pedestal but also show the complexities of Bob’s experiences in the dictatorship and to explain where he had come from and how he saw the world. I think it’s very easy to present him as a hero and I don’t think that’s fair even for Bob, who is not necessarily comfortable with the label of “hero” either. I think it would be the general expectation of people — especially on the left of the political spectrum — when they go to see the film: that Bob and the Herald are presented purely in this light. But we wanted look at the story in a more critical and analytical way, including looking at the use of certain terminology and the editorial line the Herald had regarding the Montoneros and ERP.
What terminology are you referring to?
You have people that downplay what happened in the dictatorship or prior to it, and are relaxed in their use of terms like “terrorist” or “subversives". Not too long ago the Intratables TV debate programme ran two consecutive episodes and it was really shocking to hear how similar the discourse was to the Junta’s 40 years ago. In regards to Bob and the Herald, I often say that Bob Cox isn’t Rodolfo Walsh (the famous investigative journalist who was affiliated with the Montoneros and killed by the military dictatorship). They are similar in the sense that they were both brave but dissimilar in their experiences during the dictatorship. Bob saw and experienced Argentine history from a certain viewpoint, which is entirely valid.
Is there a certain point when the Herald’s editorial line starts to change, focusing more attention on the military dictatorship’s clandestine kidnapping and murder campaign?
I think the turning-point is when the Pallottine priests are killed in July, 1976. The Herald published information about the massacre on its front page, in a carefully worded article. It’s very subtle the way they point to the armed forces.
You can see the way the Herald gave coverage to certain incidents at the very beginning. I think it’s something that showcases the bravery and boldness of the Herald and Bob as its editor. They were walking a very fine line; Bob was detained in April, 1977. What I was able to see in my research, after looking over old copies of the Herald, is they would often use coded language, a very particular way to criticise the Junta that wasn’t necessarily aggressive or blantant. You can see that the paper often embraced elements of the Junta's discourse in order to send subtle messages to its readers about what was going on. You can see this right through the early years of the Herald’s work during the dictatorship.
Can you give me an example of this?
Once I was looking at an old copy of the Herald —again with Nora Cortiñas— and saw an editorial from around June 1978 that analyses the Mothers’ search for their children and for the truth about what happened to them. It highlighted how it was important that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were given answers and shown respect. But at the bottom of the editorial it talks about the anti-Argentine campaign emerging from Europe, mentioning that terrorist leaders hiding out overseas were behind it. I would argue that the Herald understood the legitimacy of that campaign but chose to water down its very bold editorial in defence of the Mothers. In that editorial you see the Herald putting its neck on the line but embracing a discourse and using certain language to avoid being closed down or exposing its staff to danger. It was walking a fine line.
What makes Robert Cox unique in comparison to other news editors in Argentina at the time?
I think that newspaper being published in English gave Bob and the Herald a window of time to understand what was happening in Argentina and develop some sort of strategy to get the message out there. The junta really underestimated the Herald’s impact and the reach it had. It seemed to be less monitored than other newspapers. But by the time they realised the power the Herald had to influence or inform, it was almost too risky for it to do anything dramatic to Bob. Bob also had a British passport and to some extent that protected him. At one point the Junta even thought he was a CIA agent.
Why did you choose “Messenger on a White Horse” as the title of your documentary?
I didn’t actually choose it. It was Santiago Carrica, one of the film's directors of photography. For a long time it didn’t have a title and I was never really convinced by any of the possible titles. It came from one of Bob’s answers during the interview we did with him over several days. He mentioned his father being a messenger boy during World War I, riding a white horse to deliver messages. I liked the parallel with Bob becoming a journalist and the reference it makes to a heroic military figure in Bob’s life.
What was the most difficult part of developing this documentary?
I never imagined that it would be so difficult to produce and direct a film. This is my first film. I think the co-ordination of people, money and time, and not really knowing what I was doing, were some of the most difficult things. It was a baptism of fire, so to speak. You learn so much at once that it becomes difficult to channel so much newly-acquired knowledge into practice. The film took a little bit longer than it should have but at the same time I’m happy that I was able to keep control of the project and make sure it was done in the right way. This is a unique opportunity to tell such a special story. I’m glad it wasn't jeopardised because I was in a rush. I’m really happy with the final product.
Is this the first time the documentary is released to the public?
This is the World Première. The international première’s date isn’t scheduled yet as I’m still waiting to find out in which film festivals it has been accepted. I sent it to a couple of festivals in Europe and North America.
Was it difficult to get funding?
We looked for funding for about a year. We first started with a crowdfunding campaign and then began introducing the right people to the project. It was funded completely with private funds because we didn’t qualify for any subsidies with the INCAA. We were lucky to get it funded privately, which allowed us to remain completely independent.
So there are three screenings?
Yes, there is one on Sunday April 23 that had sold out. Then there’s another on Monday 24 at 3:15 pm in Village Recoleta and another on Wednesday at 3.30pm in Artemultiplex Belgrano. I’m really happy that it’s screening for the first time at BAFICI. It’s nice that it could première in Buenos Aires. Despite half the film being in English, I think it's is fitting that a porteño story would screen here. I will be at the three screenings giving a question-and-answer session at the end. And we hope to release the film in cinemas towards the end of the year.
When and where
Sunday, April 23.
20.10 at Village Recoleta 10
Monday, April 24.
15.30 at Village Recoleta 10
Wednesday, April 26 15.30 at A. Belgrano 1