by Eli Clifton and Jim Lobe
A new documentary about the death of Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor found in a pool of blood in his apartment last winter, premiered last week at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum. One might wonder why a movie about Argentina, in Spanish and apparently aimed at Argentine audiences, premiered on the East Coast of the United States. But geopolitical intrigue played a role in the prosecutor’s death. Nisman’s controversial investigation accused Iran of ordering the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed. And his body was discovered a day before he was to present a criminal complaint against Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman for an alleged attempt to persuade Interpol to revoke “red notices” issued against half a dozen of Tehran’s top leaders.
The new documentary, Los Abandonados (The Abandoned), presents a narrative that encompasses the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) center, Nisman’s allegations against Iran in 2006, and finally, the prosecutor’s untimely death by a .22-caliber revolver pistol shot to the head. The story is told with archival footage, dramatic re-enactments, and interviews with journalists, politicians, and experts—many, though not all, from Argentine opposition circles.
The bias in sourcing in favor of the Argentine opposition is not much of a surprise. Argentine politics are notoriously partisan, with media outlets and just about everyone else picking sides between the government and the opposition. The filmmakers clearly and uncritically accepted the conclusions of Nisman’s investigations—both Iranian responsibility for the AMIA bombing and the government’s efforts to quash the Interpol warrants—and saw them as the cause of Nisman’s demise. The filmmakers suggest that Iran was behind it, though without offering evidence (other than an unsupported assertion by one Argentine journalist that Iran had issued a fatwa in 2006 ordering the prosecutor’s murder), Those points of entry would naturally direct a filmmaker to seek out opposition-friendly sources.
What should raise a few eyebrows, however, are ties between the film and the U.S. partisans behind it. The driving cinematic force behind the film, Matthew A. Taylor, is a former Republican operative who still works in American right-wing circles. Although most of Taylor’s previous efforts (more on that in a moment) seemed to be geared at bolstering Republican and right-wing positions in the U.S., Los Abandonados is targeted at Argentines. The morning after premiering in Washington, the movie was released online for a small rental fee. It seems unlikely that the movie will be able to recoup the costs of what appeared to be an expensive production, leaving one to wonder who funded it, and why.
The movie’s ties to Republican Party operatives and the American Task Force Argentina (ATFA), a lobby group representing foreign Argentine debt holders who have refused to accept a substantial discount on the country’s defaulted bonds —not to mention the striking overlap between the two—might hold some answers. And those ties could raise questions, too, about the film’s political and financial motives. It was perhaps not coincidental that the film was released a month before Argentina’s presidential elections in which Fernandez’s preferred successor, Daniel Scioli, has vowed to continue her efforts to resist ATFA’s demands for full payment on the debt. (Under Argentina’s constitution, Fernandez is barred from running for another term.)
Matthew Taylor, the director, cut his teeth working for the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. According to a cached bio for a film he later worked on, Taylor “produced and edited” attack ads for the campaign, including the infamous television spot that showed John Kerry windsurfing and one that assailed the Democratic presidential nominee for being a “flip-flopper.” After the campaign, he went on to work for the Tea Party-affiliated Citizens United, overseeing the group’s film productions. Taylor moved between a political ad firm and Citizens United, according to the online biography, but ultimately landed back at the powerhouse PAC, where he ended up working on 13 films, including Newt and Callista Gingrich’s documentary, “America at Risk,” and Dick Morris’ “Battle for America,” which both list Taylor in the production credits. Citizens United was presumably the venue for Taylor’s introduction to Alan Peterson, who would go on to co-produce Los Abandonados.
Taylor’s intensely partisan work offers few explanations about why he suddenly developed an eye for Argentina, the AMIA attack, or Alberto Nisman. At the Washington premiere of Los Abandonados, Taylor offered only that his interest was sparked by “geopolitical intrigue, mystery.”
But other American right-wingers who worked on Los Abandonados have more direct interests in Latin America. One of the film’s associate producers, Douglas Farah, a former reporter turned national security consultant, has much closer associations with Argentine affairs. In 2004, after reporting for outlets such as The Washington Post from regions like Central America and West Africa, Farah aligned himself with hawkish, Washington-based organizations, writing as an expert on illicit finance and terrorism.
Since then, Farah’s writing and congressional testimony on the AMIA bombings has gotten the attention of organizations affiliated with hedge fund billionaire and Republican megadonor Paul Singer, the largest holdout in the protracted conflict between Argentina’s government and its bond holders and an ATFA funder and member from its inception in 2006. In June, 2013, Farah published a column in the Miami Herald, co-bylined with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Executive Director Mark Dubowitz, warning of Iran’s “presence in the [western] hemisphere,” and characterizing Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government—a main target of Los Abandonados’s ire—as “close to drowning in a flood of corruption scandals and destructive fiscal policies” and “seeking desperately to ignore Nisman’s report and embrace Iran as a commercial and political partner.” Singer’s Elliott Management firm, incidentally, stands to stands to gain more than a billion dollars on its initial investment, estimated at well under $100 million in discounted Argentine bonds, if he and the other holdouts prevail in their fight to recover the full debt plus interest.
In response to e-mailed questions, Farah, who said he had been a friend of Nisman’s and thought highly of the prosecutor’s work, told LobeLog, “My involvement [in Los Abandonados] was in helping shape the narrative due to my series of in-depth reports on Argentina and the corruption of the Fernández de Kirchner government.”
FDD, for its part, has been an outspoken critic of Kirchner but has never disclosed the organization’s conflict of interest in taking on her government. From 2008 to 2011, Paul Singer was the group’s second-largest donor, contributing $3.6 million.
The neoconservative think-tank, however, isn’t Farah’s only link to holders of Argentine debt. ATFA, which took out full-page ads in U.S. newspapers in 2013 linking Kirchner with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, provided a $42,500 grant to the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC), a small organization where Farah is a senior fellow. (Farah told LobeLog he doesn’t know “any members of the ATFA, nor do I know if any were involved in the film’s financing.” He added, “I have had no involvement in IASC finances or fundraising, nor do I know what the money was spent on.”)
The ATFA grant, which accounts for over a quarter of the grant revenue collected by IASC in 2013 (the last year for which tax filings are available for ATFA or IASC), was intended, according to ATFA disclosures, “for the support of the organization’s general policy and advocacy work.”
There’s big money behind ATFA—and a political motive that Los Abandonados would suit—but no direct evidence of the group’s involvement in the film itself. The Newseum had been rented as the premiere space (they did not host the event in their organizational capacity). Asked by LobeLog who made the rental, Christopher Ford, who manages special events at the Newseum, said only, “It’s a private event, so we don’t divulge that information.” He described the rental as a “business transaction.”
Aside from attacking Kirchner, the filmmakers revealed a second motive at the premiere: to serve as a warning about Iran. Although insisting that the film was started before the nuclear deal with Iran was finally struck—but not, of course, before diplomacy kicked into high gear—Taylor told the audience last week, “The Iran deal parallels this film.” He went on, “The film is about what happens when you do business with Iran. [Argentina] did business with Iran—and got two bombings and an assassination.” He made no mention of Argentina’s ongoing election campaign.