Author Ilan Sta­vans has three new books out this year, and will be intro­duc­ing each one to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil read­ers as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I want to describe how my fotonov­ela Once @ 9:53am: Ter­ror in Buenos Aires came along. A ver­sion of these thoughts appear in the volume’s after­ward, but I also want to respond to the con­tro­ver­sy the exper­i­ment has generated.

I have always felt that the ter­ror­ist attack against the AMIA, the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter in Buenos Aires, on July 18, 1994, begged to be turned into a graph­ic nov­el. The effects of the trag­ic event in the eth­ni­cal­ly mix neigh­bor­hood of Once in Buenos Aires, Argenti­na, are still felt today, espe­cial­ly among Latin Amer­i­can Jews.

Yet the idea didn’t mate­ri­al­ize until I met Argen­tine activist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Marce­lo Brod­sky and I met, around 2008, through a mutu­al friend. An admir­er of his pho­to­graph­ic work, par­tic­u­lar­ly of his artis­tic strate­gies to inter­vene” his­tor­i­cal images in order to make their mes­sage more emblem­at­ic, I was eager to talk to Brod­sky about my inter­est on the fotonov­ela as a pop­u­lar genre in Latin Amer­i­ca that need­ed to be appro­pri­at­ed in order to explore today’s polit­i­cal­ly-charged themes defin­ing the region.

Dur­ing lunch we dis­cussed an assort­ment of top­ics, after which I asked him if he had read fotonov­e­las in his ado­les­cence. I pre­ced­ed my ques­tion by describ­ing my own fas­ci­nat­ing with the form, describ­ing my assid­u­ous read­ings of it almost every week­end, when new fotonov­e­las arrived to the cor­ner news­stand in my neigh­bor­hood. I even told him that my father, a promi­nent actor of Mex­i­can soap-operas, to make ends meet, had some­times done some roles in fotonov­e­las.

As it hap­pened, Brod­sky was an enthu­si­ast. A few days lat­er, he even sent me a num­ber of extra copies of Argen­tine fotonov­e­las in his per­son­al col­lec­tion by FedEx. That con­ver­sa­tion — and a num­ber of oth­ers we enter­tained in the next few weeks — showed not only how much we had in com­mon but, also, that a col­lab­o­ra­tion between us was a possibility.

I remem­ber men­tion­ing to him my dis­tress at the quag­mire the AMIA inves­ti­ga­tion had become over the last fif­teen years or so, and the extent to which I had become a buff of the whole ter­ror­ist inci­dent, col­lect­ing a pletho­ra of items in my library: pho­tos, reportage, inter­views, nov­els, books, doc­u­men­taries, inter­views, etc. I then sug­gest­ed that through the for­mat of the fotonov­ela, should we turn the 1994 inci­dent into our cen­tral theme, we could achieve a mul­ti­ple feat: explore through fic­tion — a type of fic­tion sound­ly based on facts — what jour­nal­ism and police inves­ti­ga­tions had failed to uncov­er; renew the fotonov­ela as a legit­i­mate genre of aes­thet­ic explo­ration; and, equal­ly impor­tant, col­lab­o­rate in ways that would allow lit­er­a­ture and pho­tog­ra­phy to become part­ners, explor­ing ways in which words and images might work together.

I had anoth­er objec­tive in mind: I want­ed to use the fotonov­ela as a plat­form for inno­v­a­tive schol­ar­ship. This needs an expla­na­tion. Over my career, I have tried to approach research in non-tra­di­tion­al ways. I don’t like the term cre­ative” because tra­di­tion­al schol­ar­ship is cre­ative too, yet I’m con­scious that, in the Manichean par­a­digm used in aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles, knowl­edge is often per­ceived along those extremes: con­ven­tion­al and uncon­ven­tion­al. After the AMIA tragedy, and more so as the unfin­ished busi­ness of find­ing the cul­prits dragged on for a long time, I remem­ber think­ing to myself that the episode mer­it­ed from me a more thor­ough explo­ration, although I didn’t know what for­mat it should take.

My chance encounter with Brod­sky made that pos­si­bil­i­ty a real­i­ty. After all, he was an insid­er: an Argen­tine with some per­son­al knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion, since he had found large pieces of gran­ite from the fron­tispiece of the AMIA build­ing, lying beside the Riv­er Plate, in Mem­o­ry Park, a memo­r­i­al to the vic­tims of State Ter­ror he had helped build. These pieces lat­er became part of Brodsky’s art­work. He got in touch with sur­vivors in order to iden­ti­fy the stones and get their tes­ti­monies. It is while doing this kind of research that he became friends with peo­ple that were at the AMIA that fate­ful day. I instead was an out­sider, albeit one with a long devo­tion to the incident.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion was plea­sur­able from begin­ning to end. Dur­ing the next few months, I wrote a first draft. Actu­al­ly, at that point the nar­ra­tive I envi­sioned was more ambi­tious. It was divid­ed into three sym­met­ri­cal chap­ters, only the first of which deal direct­ly with the AMIA bomb­ing. The oth­er two looked at dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters and plots in var­i­ous parts of Buenos Aires as peo­ple strug­gled to make sense of the inci­dent. We then secured fund­ing from var­i­ous foundations.

We set a date for me to trav­el for the shoot­ing and began to make arrange­ments with actor’s unions, dress­ing com­pa­nies, car and prop rentals, as well as with the AMIA admin­is­tra­tion. Our pro­duc­tion head­quar­ters were in the build­ing of Hebrái­ca, a Jew­ish club in the Once neigh­bor­hood. We also need­ed to secure per­mis­sion from the Buenos Aires munic­i­pal­i­ty to be on loca­tion. As we set the pro­duc­tion in motion, it became obvi­ous to us that the sto­ry­line as it cur­rent­ly stood was unwieldy. It would take years to shoot it and about five times the bud­get we had secured to finance it.

Real­i­ty always wins in these kinds of bat­tles. The deci­sion, at that point, was for me to trim it, focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on the first chap­ter. My inten­tion now was to make it cohe­sive, to allow it to grow organ­i­cal­ly. I sub­se­quent­ly made a revised draft that is quite close to the final ver­sion of the fotonov­ela. From that draft Brod­sky com­mis­sioned a sto­ry­board. Dur­ing the pro­duc­tion, that sto­ry­board was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a map and a com­pass. It ground­ed us and gave us confidence.

The prin­ci­pal roles were played by pro­fes­sion­al Argen­tine and Brazil­ian Jew­ish actors. We per­suad­ed fam­i­ly and friends to take some of the oth­er roles. For instance, the girl car­ry­ing the bal­loons is Brodsky’s daugh­ter; and one of the ter­ror­ists was a mem­ber of our crew. I per­son­al­ly want­ed some promi­nent fig­ures in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to par­tic­i­pate. This desire came from the movie My Mex­i­can Shi­va (2007), which was based on a short sto­ry of mine, in which the direc­tor cast my father and oth­er promi­nent Mex­i­can Jew­ish actors. He even invit­ed me to the shoot­ing and asked me to have a small non­speak­ing part( due to union require­ments), but it was ulti­mate­ly cut. With that in mind, while in Buenos Aires I called my friend Marce­lo Bir­ma­jer, author of the par­o­dy Three Mus­ke­teers, who is among the most cel­e­brat­ed Jew­ish writ­ers from Latin Amer­i­ca today. He has a cameo in the scene where the pro­tag­o­nist is beat­en down. Brod­sky is seen hav­ing cof­fee with the pro­tag­o­nist. I myself play the Ortho­dox rab­bi that shows up incon­spic­u­ous­ly with sev­er­al col­leagues in the ear­ly part of the fotonov­ela and at the end announces, apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal­ly, that the end of time has come.

I mapped out each page metic­u­lous­ly: the num­ber of frames it need­ed, the loca­tion of text, and use of col­or. Brod­sky used these instruc­tions as inspi­ra­tion, adapt­ing them accord­ing to his aes­thet­ic needs. Like in comics and graph­ic nov­els, the suc­cess of the fotonov­ela as a genre depends on the degree in which illus­tra­tions dri­ve the plot for­ward while text goes deep­er into char­ac­ter for­ma­tion. Take pages 24 and 25, where a group of rab­bis on the street in the Once neigh­bor­hood dis­cuss an assort­ment of top­ics: the frame con­sis­tent­ly look at them at once from afar and in close-up, allow­ing for ges­tur­al nuance, locat­ing them in con­text, while their con­sue­tu­di­nary dia­logue allows the read­er to under­stand their mood, their demeanor, and what they are feel­ing in these cru­cial min­utes before the ter­ror­ist attack. Or else, look at the chase sequence on pages 47 and 48, as the com­plic­it girl runs toward the white Renault Traf­fic: the sus­pense strives from her match­ing with the oth­er cul­prits while passers­by become sus­pi­cious of their activities.

Since the post-1994 inves­ti­ga­tions have done noth­ing but hide them behind innu­en­does, my explic­it objec­tive was to give the ter­ror­ist a face. I used the for­mat of the fotonov­ela to give them a phys­i­cal­i­ty they oth­er­wise lacked.

Brod­sky and I were always sure we want­ed to con­clude the sto­ry with the pho­to­graph of the tragedy used on the front page of major news­pa­pers world­wide. Almost from the out­set he worked on get­ting per­mis­sion. I remem­ber the moment he told me he had secured it. I felt as if the whole endeav­or was now kosher. The aim was to delve into the way stereo­types are approached in the Argen­tine milieu, from the photographer’s gaze at fem­i­nin­i­ty (as a free­lancer he works for Play­boy) to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jew­ish and Arab char­ac­ters objec­tivized on the streets. This is the orig­i­nal con­text in which the action took place. Need­less to say, each cul­ture is com­fort­able in its own excesses.

Shoot­ing took a total of three days. Brod­sky took close to ten thou­sand pic­tures. In the months that fol­lowed he orga­nized the mate­r­i­al and began col­lab­o­ra­tion with a design­er who devel­oped the nar­ra­tive while also insert­ing dia­log­ic bal­loons and oth­er com­ic-strip devices. Brod­sky sent me peri­od­i­cal­ly batch­es of about 5 or 6 pages, to which I made all sorts of changes, fine-tun­ing the dia­logue, explor­ing alter­na­tive sub­plots, and so on. The need emerged of insert­ing maps of the city. For pur­pos­es of man­ag­ing the sus­pense, we used dig­i­tal clock-num­bers on strate­gic pages.

The over­all pro­duc­tion took about eight months. The fotonov­ela was pub­lished in Span­ish, in Buenos Aires, by the pub­lish­ing house Asun­to Impre­so, whose edi­tor Gui­do Indij made valu­able edi­to­r­i­al sug­ges­tions. On July, 18, 2011, in time to com­mem­o­rate the anniver­sary of the inci­dent, a pho­to­graph­ic exhib­it, with the sto­ry­board, a hand­ful of pages in var­i­ous stages of devel­op­ment, and a video walk through the neigh­bor­hood, includ­ing inter­views with the AMIA wit­ness­es and sur­vivors, was sched­uled to accom­pa­ny the release.

Ulti­mate­ly, my dream was to use the very tools of pop­u­lar cul­ture in order to pro­duce rig­or­ous knowl­edge and to dis­sem­i­nate that knowl­edge in an alter­na­tive schol­ar­ly for­mat. I want­ed it to look like a com­ic yet deliv­er a seri­ous mes­sage about the inter­sec­tion of pol­i­tics and reli­gious free­dom in Latin Amer­i­ca. I want­ed to amuse and stim­u­late, to pro­voke thought and gen­er­ate dis­cus­sion. Most­ly, I want­ed to reach a diverse audi­ence beyond the Ivory Tower.

I was thrilled when Brod­sky told me, by phone, that Once @ 9:53am: Ter­ror in Buenos Aires was being read in Argenti­na by peo­ple of all back­grounds, some of whom had lit­tle pre­vi­ous infor­ma­tion of either anti­semitism and the ter­ror­ist attack. He also men­tioned the heat­ed reac­tion it gen­er­at­ed in intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles, includ­ing Jew­ish-Latin Amer­i­can ones, for turn­ing tragedy into an illus­trat­ed nar­ra­tive, as if embrac­ing the top­ic through pop­u­lar cul­ture was a form of desecration.

My response: it is pre­cise­ly in the realm of pop­u­lar cul­ture where this fight needs to be fought, sub­vert­ing pre­dictable tropes, turn­ing stereo­types upside down, and show­ing that art isn’t the exclu­sive domain of elites. After all, nei­ther ter­ror nor anti­semitism are the pre­vue of only a few.

Ilan Sta­vans is a Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege and the author of many books of both Jew­ish and non­sec­tar­i­an interests.

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