A Lone Penguin: The Story Behind "NK"

What can and can’t you talk about as a filmmaker in Argentina?

By Jessica SequeiraApril 3, 2014

    A Lone Penguin: The Story Behind "NK"

    WHEN FILMMAKER Israel Adrián Caetano was chosen by the Argentine government in 2011 to make a documentary about Néstor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, he was enthusiastic at first. Néstor had died of a heart attack in 2010, and Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, his widow, wanted to make a documentary in his memory. For his part, Caetano saw the project as a fascinating opportunity to probe the “Néstor nostalgia” that had overwhelmed the Argentine electorate for the last half-decade.

    Caetano certainly had the credentials for the job. His previous work included Bolivia, a gritty black-and-white film about an undocumented Bolivian in Buenos Aires; A Red Bear, about an ex-prisoner’s attempt to reconnect with his daughter without turning his back on the world of crime; Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes, about a group of misfit teenagers living on the outskirts of Buenos Aires; and Chronicle of an Escape, about the flight of four men from an Argentine military death squad in the 1970s. All of these films had won a number of international prizes and done very well at the domestic box office. Though this would be Caetano’s first feature-length documentary, he had contributed a clip to the project 18-j, about the bombing of the Jewish charity AMIA in Buenos Aires, and worked on several non-fiction shorts.

    What didn’t quite fit the project was his personality. Caetano isn’t a “yes man” by any stretch of the imagination. In Argentina, he’s seen as something of an outsider — born in Uruguay, he’s always referred to in the press as an uruguayo, despite having lived in Buenos Aires since he was sixteen. There is a vivid discontent in his work — a sensitivity to social and political injustice — and his active Twitter feed is full of jibes against chetos, or posh kids. In photos, he nearly always sports a scruffy beard, baseball cap, and baggy sweatshirt, and his expression seems to hover somewhere between hostility, apathy, and disillusionment. You can get away with being a foreigner here, and with spurning trussed-up elegance. What you can’t avoid is that in this part of the world, cultural production is inseparable from politics, and working on a project with the government doesn’t come without strings.

    Caetano openly refers to himself as a Peronist, a loose political term based on the legacy of President Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva in the 1940s. It’s an ideology hard to pin down, because while aligned with the broad goals of social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty — goals most people agree on — historically it has been been used by politicians to pursue completely contradictory policies. (Kirchnerism is seen as a branch of Peronism.) Caetano’s Peronism therefore doesn’t necessarily pin him to one party. He’s not dogmatic about his political views, as he is about his love for filmmaking and his favorite football club, Independiente. He is generally, but not uniformly, supportive of the current government.

    “I approached the documentary’s subject from a very objective and anthropological place, a skeptical place,” he would say later in an interview with La Voz del Interior, a newspaper from Córdoba. “During the period the work lasted I became a militant. Afterward no, because that doesn’t interest me. I didn’t become a sycophant to power. The government of Néstor and Cristina has always suited me, but I am not a fanatical sycophant. I never was, not even being a Peronist since I was young. I don’t understand the idea of being young and indoctrinated.”

    Perhaps Caetano knew what he was getting into when he signed up for the project, or perhaps he didn’t. As the next few years would make clear, what was expected was a documentary that portrayed Néstor positively without casting the current government in a poor light. Kirchner past had to shine, without eclipsing Kirchner present. And when the blurry line separating political sympathy from propaganda was crossed, Caetano packed his bags.


    What can and can’t you talk about as a filmmaker in Argentina? Juan José Campanella, director of the Oscar award-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, has recently said that Kirchnerists advised him not to get involved with politics. “They were friends, and didn’t say it as a threat. They said we have to listen a little more, fight a little less. But I don’t want to give up my right as a citizen to offer an opinion, criticize, or give support,” he said on a radio program. In an interview, the internationally bestselling novelist Federico Andahazi told me that “even if film directors don’t do political cinema, if they don’t align themselves with the government they’re sent tax auditors.”

    It was in this atmosphere that Caetano began preparing NK. He hadn’t been the first choice to make the film — on behalf of President Cristina, the producers Fernando “Chino” Navarro and Jorge “Topo” Devoto had originally chosen director José Luis García for the project. But at an early stage Luis García dropped out due to vague “political differences.” (Unlike Caetano, he didn’t talk with the press afterward.)

    One can speculate, of course. While Luis García’s previous documentaries, on the War of the Triple Alliance in Paraguay and the struggle against repression in North Korea, didn’t shy away from controversial themes, they made no attempt to clarify the lingering ambiguities of their topics. And Luis García has said in an interview with EnElSet Cine that “I prefer films which are left open, with more questions than answers, not films that intend to close a theme definitively.” Caetano consulted with Luis García before taking up the project, and got the go-ahead. “I spoke with him out of ethics between colleagues. After having clarified things, I decided to give my positive response to the producers, knowing that there was impressive work to be done and that I wasn’t fucking up his project [jodiéndole el guiso].” But Garcia’s exit was a sign of things to come.

    Pre-production began in earnest. A campaign to collect material, called Yo quiero ser parte, was widely publicized, and people sent in over 17,000 contributions — old television interviews, photographs, stories, letters, YouTube videos, even cell phone footage. There was so much material that a special exhibition was put on at the Casa del Bicentenario, along with a book featuring previously unpublished photos of the president. The script, written by journalist Carlos Polimeni and philosopher Ricardo Foster, was ready. The documentary began to pick up momentum. And then, eight months after he had begun, Caetano also withdrew from the project, asking that his name be taken off the film. What had gone wrong behind the scenes?

    According to Caetano, the producers hadn’t agreed with his final cut. The producers made no attempt to deny this. “Chino” Navarro explained that there had been “differences in opinion,” and that they had been primarily political, not aesthetic. “We aspire to make a film that exceeds the best homage that Cristina can imagine of Néstor’s life,” he said. In a radio interview, he expanded: “We didn’t share the political orientation of the film, which was a look at the internal processes of Peronism.”

    Caetano confirmed that the reason was that his cut was too “Peronist.” In an interview with the magazine Haciendo Cine, he offered the following explanation:

    Caetano: It was a very personal and very political documentary, without being propaganda. The producers came to me to say that the film was very Peronist.

    Interviewer: As something bad?

    Caetano: Yes, as something bad. I told them, “I am Peronist, Kirchner was Peronist… yes, the film will end up Peronist.”

    What seems baffling on reading this is that Cristina is herself “Peronist.” Although the initial Peronism of the 1940s leaned increasingly right wing, especially after Perón spent time in Spain under Franco, left-wing interpretations of Peronism became popular during the 1960s and ’70s, both within and outside the official Justicialist Party founded by Perón. After the country returned to a democratic system of governance in 1983 after a series of military dictatorships, presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde embraced a series of right-wing, neoliberal policies. Néstor Kirchner would emerge from this same Justicialist Party background, but offer an alternative, championing the “leftist” Peronism he’d been exposed to at university.

    Under Néstor’s lead, the leftist “Front for Victory” faction of the Justicialist Party gained power from 2003 to 2007, and when his wife became president, she would also give it her support. But once in power, expediency was frequently favored over reflection, and the political use of themes like human rights was preferred over real engagement with them. The film’s Peronism, then, may have been so upsetting precisely because it was part of the branch of the movement unafraid of being self-critical and historically aware, a branch Néstor and Cristina had once militated for.

    As remarks like Navarro’s began to receive negative press, the producers began offering other explanations. Navarro mentioned contract deadlines and conflicting commitments. He explained that Caetano had already begun shooting his new film Mala, about a woman suffering from sexual violence, and didn’t have space in his schedule to make more changes. “Adrián has a lot of work and didn’t have time to discuss things again,” he said. “That’s why we decided to look for another director.”

    Aesthetic differences were now also touted as a primary reason for Caetano’s sudden departure from the project. In this case, political differences were inseparable from stylistic ones. Caetano had said he wanted to present the various documentary clips without voiceovers or added interviews, so that they could stand on their own without “propagandistic” intervention. He preferred to refer to his project as a “document” rather than a “documentary,” and to simply show footage rather than a labored compilation of interviews, which he thought would overly define and simplify his subject.

    In contrast, the directors wanted a more traditional approach with a clearer political line. Rumors went around that Florencia Kirchner, Cristina’s daughter and herself a filmmaker involved with the project, had something to do with Caetano leaving. A third director, Paula de Luque, was found, and a few months later a version of Néstor’s documentary was finally finished. It was based on interviews with people who had known Néstor, and the result was close to hagiography.


    The story would have ended here if a version of Caetano’s film had not been mysteriously leaked after he left the project, posted to a pro-Kirchnerist website. It remains unclear who was responsible, though “Chino” Navarro later hinted heavily that it was Caetano himself. What is certain is that the film started circulating; it was linked and relinked, with viewers responding positively.

    On May 23, 2013, president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner wrote a series of 16 Tweets saying that she herself had just watched Caetano’s version of the film — the leaked version — and was very impressed. She requested that it be widely distributed, and denied that her government had ever interfered with Caetano’s production. Cristina is known to be a prolific, personal Tweeter with very few filters; what she writes on Twitter is often dissected by political scientists and newspaper columnists. Here are her stream-of-consciousness Tweets from that day, translated and combined in line with their intention to be read together:

    Olivos [Cristina’s home in Buenos Aires]. Last night in Calafate, I watched Caetano’s film about Néstor. I knew that someone had uploaded it to the internet, but I hadn’t wanted to see it. I’d seen Paula de Luque’s film just after it came out. Why? The truth is that it caused me a lot of pain, nearly unbearable. A few days ago Florencia [Cristina’s daughter] saw [Caetano’s film] and told me that she’d sent an email to the director congratulating him. I asked her: which one did you like more? She told me they were different. She liked them both. That Caetano’s was a documentary… And that the other, Paula’s, had shooting, interviews, etc, etc. Florencia studies film, looks and notices things that others don’t. Finally I decided, I called up Topo Devoto and asked him to send me the film, said I wanted to see it.

    Last night after dinner it rained a lot in Calafate. I sat in the same armchair I’d sat in with him and put in the CD. It moved me. It was him. Simply, clearly, and totally him. From start to finish. I felt like he was looking at me again. Paula’s film has to do with different ways of looking, maybe because she’s a woman. Also with the conviction that Néstor is the product of a generation in a historical context. Thank you Paula. [But] Caetano, literally, got inside him. It’s the look by one man at another man and at his role in the history of a country… Our country: Argentina. I must confess that after seeing him again in all his political and human fullness… and essentially in his historical role, I felt small, very small.

    I called up Topo. It was around one in the morning… I told him that I wanted it distributed. That it should be seen. Why have people invented with rivers of ink on paper that I stopped it? How is it possible to lie and slander so much? El Topo answered me: “Don’t you remember the journalists said we’d sent Caetano political inspectors?” “Yes, you’re right Topo. Why should I be surprised by that?”

    This request for distribution may have seemed an about-turn following the previous differences with Caetano. But honoring Cristina’s request, Navarro took the necessary steps for the documentary to be aired on Telefe, the nation’s most-watched television channel. It was shown on June 2, 2013, at 7:30 PM on a Sunday night — prime time — and Navarro tweeted that it was drawing over two million viewers. Caetano himself was upset that the “incomplete” version was being shown. When somebody messaged him “what are you doing right now @IACaetano?” he replied: “Correcting a script while looking at Tweets once in a while… The TV? I turned it off a while ago.”

    Caetano began to refer to the project as “NK Unfinished,” and to update his Twitter feed with messages like “It still needs polishing, editing, a sound track, music, a lot of things” and “It makes sense to finish it properly and remove this cheap version from the discussion.” In an interview with the website InfoNews, he commented that: “It smells of political opportunism that this film be released immediately, circulating with a certain official authorization so that it’s no longer an orphan film. There are a ton of questions, we’re talking about politics and power, it’s no small thing… I have always tried to stay to one side of all this.”

    But he couldn’t stay to one side when a version of his film he wasn’t happy with was being screened and talked about. And so he decided to finish and release a definitive version. On November 15, 2013, he tweeted: “Producer and director aren’t like oil and water, but like a large oil can and a lighter… one ignites, the other explodes.” On November 21, two years after Caetano had begun his documentary, it finally made it to the big screen at movie theaters run by the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA).


    I went to see NK at the INCAA Gaumont on a warm November evening last year in Buenos Aires. The movie theater is located next to the Congress building, on a plaza which plays host to indigenous rights protests and gay pride parades. The Gaumont is a favorite theater for young people. Because it only screens independent films by Argentine filmmakers (“nada de Hollywood,” as a boy explained to his Colombian girlfriend in line in front of me), the price of a movie has remained a stubborn eight pesos, even as every other cinema in the city hikes prices.

    It’s not the kind of theater with popcorn or previews. The lights went out, and then there he was. Néstor in video recordings captured by television journalists and cell phone owners; Néstor, sweating in a university room, speaking during a snowstorm, uninterrupted by voice-overs or interviews that might distract from the content itself. The clips range from his days as a young politician in Patagonia to his death in 2010, and since they are not presented chronologically, they produce a kind of temporal vertigo. Middle-aged Néstor. Young Néstor. Elderly Néstor, Young Néstor again. At different points his movements are more or less polished, and he is a better or worse speaker, but the years don’t change his essential Néstorness. Images and speeches and news clips, one after the other. What should one make of this barrage of distinct moments that make up a life?

    The first and last shots of Caetano’s documentary are taken from Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, and feature a penguin making its way alone into the snowy wilderness. Néstor’s supporters were called pingüinos (penguins) because he started his political career in Santa Cruz, a province of the snowy Patagonian south of Argentina; he himself was referred to as El Pingüino. A beloved man, a national hero who prioritized employment and public works; an ugly man, an eccentric politician who sought short term fixes over long term national health: Néstor Kirchner was all of these things, and by simply recording him speaking on various occasions, Caetano’s film covers these angles.

    When Néstor was elected president in 2003, he had only 22 percent of the vote. Yet even those who hadn’t initially supported him hoped that he might help invigorate a tired political landscape, still devastated by the financial crisis of 2001 and the policies of previous presidents Meném and de la Rúa. During a period of high political instability — during this time Argentina famously had five presidents in under two weeks — Néstor was hand-picked by previous president Duhalde and promoted as an “outsider” representing an alternative to other candidates who would prolong the same old disastrous policies.

    In evaluating Néstor’s career after his death, many believed that he had lived up to these expectations, keeping the country from the brink of economic disaster, decreasing poverty, and building infrastructure, even if this meant giving up on the free capitalism and strict debt repayment that  his predecessors had insisted on. When Néstor died of a surprise heart attack three years after taking office, the outpouring of grief in Buenos Aires was overwhelming, and thousands of people filed past his coffin in the Casa Rosada.

    Néstor had come seemingly out of nowhere — that is, from beyond the claustrophobic sphere of Buenos Aires politics. He had studied to be a lawyer at the Universidad Nacional de la Plata, where he met his wife Cristina, and had joined a number of Peronist groups. Then in 1991 he was elected governor of Santa Cruz, and re-elected in 1995 and 1999. He was voted in as president in 2003, defeating ex-president Carlos Menem, who stepped down before results were announced.

    As president, Néstor introduced the populist policies that both made life bearable for everyday citizens, and set the country up for long-term difficulties. He spurned the World Bank and IMF, defaulting on bonds that if paid would have brought the nation to its knees. He spent money on welfare and public works projects to help repair social inequities, drawing comparisons in the international press with the United States’ Franklin D. Roosevelt. The nation continued to grow, and employment increased. According to government statistics, inflation increased only slightly, from 4.4 percent when Néstor entered office in 2004 to 8.8 percent when he left it, although non-government sources named higher figures. (In 2007 Néstor fired the head of Argentina’s National Statistics and Census Institute, the national organization that measures inflation.)

    During his presidency Néstor continued to draw on the political techniques he’d learned in Santa Cruz, a region that occupies an enormous land mass but is sparsely populated. Because Santa Cruz is rich in oil reserves, Néstor had largely been able to remain financially and politically independent from national and international politics, and he would continue this semi-isolationist approach as president. His extended period away from the political center of Buenos Aires, combined with his personal charm, perhaps also gave him the space and ability to turn business interests to his personal benefit, as opponents claim. Though the claims are still being verified, it is perhaps no more than would be expected from a political system in which top-down social reforms are effected through powerful, charismatic individuals.


    In the end, the differences between Caetano’s “leaked” and “final” versions seem to have been fairly minor, though both Caetano products differ massively from the Paula de Luque version the producers preferred. The primary difference between the two cuts is a marked improvement in sound and video quality, and a slight increase in length due to the addition of the lone penguin footage at the start and end. Perhaps there is some parallel between Néstor and Caetano in that image of the eccentric bird that breaks away from the colony, setting off into the cold, confident in his own abilities, but forging an unorthodox path.

    The producers had found fault with Caetano’s documentary because it didn’t explicitly verbalize any argument about Néstor’s policies. But as the controversy surrounding the film became public, critics seemed to agree that the film did take clear positions with its juxtaposition of clips and images, and that it was something other than an opinion-free “document.” As Jorge Luis Fernández wrote in Revista Veintitrés, “Caetano’s message can be read in the selection and arrangement of material. When he speaks before the IMF, or during his talk to Congress about the 1994 reform, when he expresses disappointment in Raúl Alfonsín and is annoyedly interrupted by ex-senator Eduardo Menem, Kirchner becomes a David that doesn’t back down before Goliaths or sacred cows.” And as Oscar Ranzani noted in Página/12, “After showing Kirchner’s ascent as president, the film goes back in time to show him touring the neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, talking to inhabitants about their difficulties due to harsh snows. Kirchner is shown playing in the snow with children, a political postcard of him that would continue resonating many years later when as president he plunged into a group of protestors, as if wanting to erase the line separating power from the people.”

    At its core, Peronism is not just about the power of the state to redistribute wealth more equitably, ensure workers’ welfare, and provide access to basic necessities like health and education. It is also about the personality of the person who embodies the government and the people: the President. Given the power that the state holds, good judgment, diplomatic skill, and personal charm become particularly important. To be “Peronist” means both to join a long historical tradition, and to be very concerned with the current leader in charge.

    And here, again, one suspects why the producers might have recoiled at the “Peronism” suggested by Caetano's work. Cristina’s government seems to be interested in her public persona at the expense of providing a “historical trajectory” for her administration. (Her obsession with Tweeting is one example.) The problem with Caetano’s film was not its selection of clips, in which Néstor, despite his unconventional looks and awkward presence, comes off as a compelling figure and effective president. Caetano wanted viewers to like Néstor because they could see and hear for themselves that he was likeable, not because they’d been told to do so. The problem was the historical perspective this approach to filmmaking created. Caetano’s decision to forgo an explicit message had a certain moral quality; for not only does primary source documentary footage tend to possess a more convincing truth claim than secondary source interviews, it also possesses the power of contrast.

    The visual qualifiers that Caetano includes in his presentation of Néstor are from the very end of his life, when Néstor continued working with the government although Cristina was president. In a clip dated March 12, 2008, we see vegetables rotting in the road, vats of milk spilled out into ditches by the side of the road, and crops burned by farmers unhappy with Cristina’s decision to decrease wheat and corn holdings in favor of soy — a reversal of Néstor’s policy of increasing the country’s holdings of all three crops. These clips might have been part of the “Peronist trajectory” that Cristina’s representatives complained they’d found in Caetano’s work, a neat historical comparison between the Néstor years and the Cristina years.

    It would have been difficult for Caetano to avoid this (although Paula de Luque somehow managed it). For any documentary about Néstor Kirchner is also a documentary about Cristina Kirchner. Néstor died in October 2010, but before he did, he made it clear that his wife was to be his political successor. In her campaign, she emphasized her grief over her husband’s death and her continuity with his policies, and was duly elected. This is why remembering Néstor is such a politically fraught business; the tight image control by Cristina’s staff over Néstor’s memory is to a large extent a control about how Cristina herself is perceived.

    Understanding Néstor helps us understand Cristina — not just because she’s in so many of the clips accompanying him during his speeches and travels, but also because she claims to take up where he’s left off. And yet in many ways her presidency has been quite distinct from his. Many of the current government’s problems have nothing to do with Néstor’s. Inflation, for instance, which increased slightly during his presidency, is now wildly out of control at almost 30 percent, and relationships with the unions have been far from smooth. In even hinting at this, Caetano crossed the invisible line of what can be talked about in Argentina.


    As I write these words, Cristina has just posted a photo on Facebook in honor of Néstor. Yesterday she traveled to Río Gallegos in Santa Cruz, to remember her husband on what would be his 64th birthday, and also perhaps to do some damage control. Local news media last year began to report on alleged embezzlement by “los K”, as the couple is widely known. Money destined for infrastructural projects in Santa Cruz during Néstor’s government was apparently channeled to tax havens by their business acquaintance Lázaro Báez, and the government is dealing with the fall-out. As with the Caetano saga, it’s a messy story, with journalists scrambling to figure out what exactly is going on, and who knew what.

    What will be the result of all these back-and-forths, obfuscations, and political maneuverings? Will any of the outcry last, or will it too be forgotten like all the government’s other transgressions, small and large? Caetano’s film went beyond mere Néstor nostalgia to recuperate the source material of the ex-president’s speeches and public appearances, and introduce it to a broader audience. His film is immensely valuable for all those interested in studying the past to improve the present. And if indirectly, through its arrangement of images, it occasionally hints at difficulties in both Néstor’s and Cristina’s presidencies, these ought to be grounds for reflection — not for cutting the director out of the project, and finding someone more willing to treat the Kirchner name as sacred.

    The final version of Israel Adrián Caetano’s film with the penguin clips does not appear to have been uploaded online, but the “leaked” version shown on Telefe can be viewed here.


    Jessica Sequeira is a writer, journalist, and translator living in Buenos Aires.

    LARB Contributor

    Jessica Sequeira is a writer, journalist, and translator living in Buenos Aires. She has published in Boston ReviewTime OutLitro MagazinePalabras Errantes, and Ventana Latina.


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