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“All I knew about Sweden was Olof Palme”

Writer Claudio Tamburrini, whose life is portrayed in a new film, talks to Eddie de Oliveira about surviving torture, playing football and building a new life in Sweden.

On a wintry 25th June 1978 at the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina lifted the World Cup for the first time, beating Holland 3-1 in a classic final. One player was notable by his absence that day.

Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest of all time, refused to participate in the tournament as a personal protest against the military dictatorship that had ruled Argentina since 1976. Despite allegations of corruption and interference by the junta, the victory was sweet for Argentinians who took to the cold, tickertape-strewn streets to celebrate en masse.

Among the cheering crowds was a 24-year-old named Claudio Tamburrini. It was the first time he had left his hideout in three months. Tamburrini spent 120 days between November ‘77 and March ‘78 in a torture house, denied any semblance of a human right.

“The thing I worried about the most in those first weeks of captivity was that my football club would release me on a free transfer,” says Claudio Tamburrini. It sounds flippant, a typically Buenos Aires joke, until he concludes “and then, of course, I realised there were other things to think about.” Never tell an Argentinian “it’s only football”.

I’m in Wayne’s Coffee on Götgatan in Stockholm, surrounded by smiling 20-somethings sipping lattes and cappuccinos in the middle of this mildest of Swedish winters. Sitting in the corner, tapping away on his laptop, cutting an unimposing and unassuming figure, is Dr. Tamburrini – philosophy academic, political refugee, torture survivor, writer and goalkeeper.

On 23rd November 1977, a year or so after the military junta seized power in Argentina, Tamburrini was kidnapped and taken to one of several clandestine detention centres in the capital, Buenos Aires.

Accused of being a “subversive”, Tamburrini was among thousands rounded up by the right-wing junta for having links, however tenuous, to leftist movements. He was held in a room at the Mansion Seré with other inmates for four months, until their daring and epic escape in March 1978. The men made their way out by tying bedsheets together and abseiling out of the window. A year later, Tamburrini arrived as a refugee in Sweden, where he still lives with his partner and two young children.

Some twenty years after his arrival here, Tamburrini felt there was enough distance from the experiences to write them up as a book. The title he chose for this harrowing account was Pase Libre, which translates as Free Transfer. At the time of his capture, Tamburrini was goalkeeper for Almagro, a second division team in Argentina, as well as a philosophy student at the University of Buenos Aires.

After the initial weeks of his captivity, concerns about his career at Almagro faded and, as time wore on, Tamburrini says he “became a pain in the neck for the other inmates.

“I was negative. But my fear was not that I’d be killed, it was that I’d never be released. I imagined spending 25, 30 years in that place. I couldn’t see the light.”

Tamburrini is in the spotlight thanks to a film version of his book directed by the much-lauded Uruguayan filmmaker Adrian Caetano, who has adopted Argentina as his work home. BUENOS AIRES 1977, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a faithful adaptation.

“The important thing was that the director respected the spirit of the book,” says Tamburrini. “It’s not about the good guys and the bad guys. The story deals with greys, not black and white, which is far more interesting.”

The masterful Caetano directs his film in the style of a horror, with low angles, striking music and sharp lighting. It’s a well-chosen approach; what Tamburrini and the others lived through was a real-life horror, but Caetano is never gratuitous, preferring his audience to imagine the terror of torture rather than see it close-up, which, of course, makes it all the more frightening. For Tamburrini, the first screening was the toughest.

“I was right back in that room at the detention centre. The film brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of that place.”

Saturated as we are by images of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and executions, it’s easy to see stark parallels between the world of BUENOS AIRES 1977 and the climate of fear and detention procedures in place today. In a recent essay, Tamburrini suggests that “the world has not become a better place since the 1978 Cup. The detention practices to which I was subjected in my youth are now being overtly applied on a worldwide basis.”

After his unlikely escape, Tamburrini spent a year in Argentina, during which he says “I was literally looking over my shoulder all the time, and I lived in four different places.”

At the UNHCR in Brazil, he was given the choice of refugee status in either Sweden or Denmark. Soon after, in August 1979, he and his then-girlfriend and her daughter were touching down at Växjö airport. “The only thing I knew about Sweden was Olof Palme,” he says. Tamburrini was struck immediately by the vast forests. “We were driven to the refugee camp and I remember the road vividly, surrounded by huge trees.”

He began studying Swedish almost immediately and by 1980, after his relationship ended, he moved to the capital, lived in numerous sublet apartments and began studying philosophy at Stockholm University. I asked him if he ever felt afraid in the early days of his life in Sweden.

“Never. I felt like a tourist, discovering new things every day. But it was lonely. I’d go for weeks without talking to anyone. I phoned home a lot and wrote many letters. I have precious memories of that solitary time; I had time for myself, time to think.”

Tamburrini returned to Argentina in 1985 to testify at the trial of the junta. He ended up staying in his homeland for a year, becoming an integral part of the General Attorney’s team. The verdict, in December 1985, was a disappointment: the Commander of the Air Force, for whom Tamburrini’s kidnappers were working, received a four-and-a-half year sentence.

In 1992 Tamburrini completed his thesis in Stockholm, on the subject “Moral Justification of Punishment”, and his career became firmly rooted in academia. Fluent in Swedish, he took up a post at Göteborg University, commuting several times a week from Stockholm.

“Pase Libre was written on the X2000,” he says, a little wistfully. “I miss the train journeys, actually.”

A frequent visitor to Argentina, he has no desire to live there. He says he has never been ostracised in Sweden, and that this is his home. What is most striking about Tamburrini is, well, his philosophical approach to those four brutal months, and what has happened since.

“The moment I jumped out of the window, I left that behind me. I began to feel motivated by this story. My new life in Sweden is a direct consequence of this story. My career is, in part, down to my reflections on this story. Then there’s the book, the film – exceptional things keep happening that enrich me as a person.”

There are no pauses, no hesitations. Tamburrini is adamant and categorical.

“If you told me I could go back in time to Buenos Aires, 23rd November 1977, 11.30 in the morning, and asked me if I wanted to skip the next 4 months, I’d say ‘no, I’d live it again,’ knowing the outcome as I do. It hasn’t limited possibilities, it’s given me more possibilities.”

Tamburrini is currently working on the next part of his story, centring on what happened to the captives after the escape. He is attending film festivals and premieres to promote BUENOS AIRES 1977, as well as looking for a Swedish publisher for Pase Libre.

Thirty years after his abduction ended a footballing career in Argentina, Tamburrini still plays the beautiful game, albeit for an eighth division Swedish side. It’s futile to hypothesise, but I wonder if he might have become a goalkeeper for the national side. I ask him if, in his heyday, he was any good.

“I was the best,” he says. “And that’s not a joke.”

Eddie de Oliveira

BUENOS ARIES 1977 is due to be released in Sweden later in 2007.

FILM

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic

A front-line Swedish nurse is getting some Covid downtime with a week of private screenings of the Gothenburg film festival, in a former lighthouse off the country's west coast.

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic
Competition winner Lisa Enroth.

More than 12,000 candidates from 45 countries applied to watch the festival's films in almost near isolation on an island 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Stockholm.

The prize is a week viewing as many of the festival's 70 premieres as they like in a hotel in the former Pater Noster Lighthouse. But they will be in isolation and will have no access to their own computer or laptop.

READ ALSO: Decision on stricter restrictions for foreign travellers to be made quickly

The bright-red lighthouse, built on a tiny island off Sweden's west coast in 1868, is surrounded by a scattering of squat, red buildings originally built to house the lighthouse keeper's family. It can only be reached by boat or helicopter, depending on the weather.

After a series of interviews and tests, festival organisers chose emergency nurse and film buff Lisa Enroth for the prize, in keeping with the 2021 festival's theme, Social Distances.

Before boarding a small speedboat out to the island on the clear, chill winter's morning, Enroth said she had applied not only out of her love for the cinema, but also to seek respite from her hectic work as an emergency nurse during the pandemic.

“It has been hectic, so it's a nice opportunity just to be able to land and to reflect over the year,” she said.

Months working amid Covid crisis

Sweden, which has taken a light-touch approach to the pandemic compared to its neighbours, has been facing a stronger than expected second wave of the virus. So far, more than 11,500 people have died from Covid-19 across the country.

Enroth works in the emergency ward of a hospital in Skovde in central Sweden. Since the start of the pandemic, her hospital's work caring for virus patients on top of their regular workload has been intense.

Lisa Enroth on her way to the remote festival location. Photo: AFP

“We had a lot of Covid cases during this year and every patient that has been admitted to the hospital has been passing through the emergency ward,” she told journalists.

The organisers said they were surprised by the numbers of applicants for the prize but were confident they had chosen the right candidate — not only for her love of cinema.

“She has also dedicated this past year in the frontline against the Covid-19 pandemic,” the festival's creative director Jonas Holmberg said to AFP.

“That's also one of the reasons we chose her”. 

Isolated screenings

Boarding the boat dressed in a thick survival suit, Enroth sped over the calm, icy waters, jumping off in the island's tiny harbour and disappearing into her lodgings.

A screen has been set up in the lantern room at the top of the windswept island's lighthouse, offering a 360-degree view of the sea and coastline around.

Another wide screen has been set up in one of the island's buildings.

Enroth will also have a tablet and headphones if she wants to watch films elsewhere on the island, which measures just 250 metres by 150 metres.

With only one other person staying permanently on the island — a safety precaution — Enroth's only contact with the outside world will be through her video diary about the films she has viewed.

The festival's films will be shown online and two venues in Gothenburg itself will allow screenings for just one person at a time.

Holmberg, the festival's creative director, said he hoped events like these would maintain interest in the industry at a time when many screens are closed because of pandemic restrictions.

“We are longing so much to come back to the cinemas and in the meantime we have to be creative and do the things that we can to create discussion,” he told journalists.

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