Uruguay’s real-life persecution of political prisoners in film ‘A Twelve-Year Night’ is a stark reminder of journalist’s father’s oppression during dictatorship

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s  A Twelve-Year Night  (Netflix)

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s A Twelve-Year Night (Netflix)

A Twelve-Year Night is a political drama about the 12-year authoritarian civic-military dictatorship in Uruguay from 1973-1985. The film portrays the atrocious true tales of the captivity of 3 key members of the leftist guerrilla group, Tupamaros National Liberation Front, who were imprisoned and tortured for a dozen years. Uruguayan Álvaro Brechner's award-winning film premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival and was released on Netflix on December 2018 in Spanish with English subtitles.

I was overjoyed when I learned that Netflix was picking up the movie about Uruguay's recent dark history. It felt as if the world would finally know what Uruguayans had endured. The oppressive regime was a time of extreme political unrest in Uruguay but is mostly unheard of on a global scale.

Tupas, also known as MLN-T, named themselves after Túpac Amaru II who led a revolt against Spanish colonizers in Peru in the 18th-century. Tupas were affiliated with the trade-union and were active in the 1960s as they attempted to change Uruguay's oppressive government. In retaliation, President Jorge Pacheco Areco declared a state of emergency in 1968 followed by the military coup d 'état in June 1973. Tupas were considered subversive traitors and often killed upon capture without clemency. It's believed that at least 300 assumed Tupas were murdered during the conflict. 

The military dictatorship shut down Congress and independent media. Trade unions and university groups were banned. One out of every 50 people were jailed during the brutal junta—the highest rate of political prisoners per capita in the world. The Uruguayan national motto, Libertad o Muerte, mocked the population. 

Hundreds disappeared and remain unaccounted for, including professors, scientists, doctors, poets, and other educated citizens. The Marcha del Silencio has been held annually since 1996  in Montevideo on May 20th to commemorate disappeared detainees. Over 10 percent of Uruguayans fled the country—including my father.

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s  A Twelve-Year Night  (Netflix)

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s A Twelve-Year Night (Netflix)

My father witnessed ongoing violence and knew many people who were killed or went missing. Today, he insists on sitting in chairs that face the door as it was all too common for the military to use pen fire in restaurants. He remembers hearing gunshots daily on the streets and hiding underneath cars to avoid being hit by stray bullets. This was all before the military dictatorship officially began.

The government mistakenly believed that my father was associated with the Tupas because his roommate was a guerrilla. The military tortured my father during questioning. He was placed in a patio filled with water and shocked with a cattle prod. Uruguayan military officers are believed to have learned these inhumane torture tactics from CIA operatives such as Dan Mitrione who was eventually executed by the Tupas. 

Wet submarine was another torture method used on prisoners whose heads would be dunked in filthy water, contaminated with a vial mixture of vomit, excrement, and blood, until they nearly drowned. This would be repeated until the prisoner revealed the information they possessed about the Tupas. These methods earned Uruguay the nickname of the torture chamber of Latin America. A Twelve-Year Night hauntingly captures the hostile environment in a scene where the prisoners are suffocated with gasoline doused bags. 

Once my father was released, he fled the country on his severely injured legs. He didn't tell his mother he was leaving. He feared the next time the military took him in for questioning, he'd go missing like hundreds of others.  At 24-years-old, he made the excruciating plight of the roughly 5,000-mile journey from Uruguay to Mexico, mostly on foot. Over the next six months, there were many days he went without food, slept amongst predators in rainforests, and had to fight for his life. 

Brechner wrote and directed the historical thriller in a manner that's almost too painful to watch. Carlos Catalan's cinematic treatment of this stark era is soul-crushing. It took me four months to finally watch the movie. The scenes paralyzed me with the realities of the trauma my father and our people went through. 

This isn't a fiction film. The people depicted aren't characters. A Twelve-Year Night is a fact-based dramatization of real people. Some scenes were shot at Montevideo's Libertad Prison which was built during the military junta for the singular purpose of holding political prisoners.

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s  A Twelve-Year Night  (Netflix)

Still from director Alvaro Brechner’s A Twelve-Year Night (Netflix)

One of the prisoners in A Twelve-Year Night is José "Pepe" Mujica, played by Antonio de la Torre. He was in solitary confinement for the majority of his incarceration in the direst locations, such as an empty grain silo. He went on to recover from his mental and physical torture and was elected as the 40th president of Uruguay in 2010. Mujica is known globally for his progressive politics and views on life and liberty

Uruguayan actor Alfonso Tort had the role of Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro who became Uruguay's Minister of Defense after democracy was restored.  Mauricio Rosencof, played by Chino Darín, was the leader of the Tupas and later became the Director of Culture of the Municipality of Montevideo.

Inspiration for the feature film was drawn from Memorias del Calabozo, Rosencof and Huidobro's joint memoir about their experiences as Tupas and surviving the grueling dungeon sentence. Brechner spent four years researching in preparation for the film and required the actors to lose 30 pounds and avoid sunlight. Each was able to meet with the person they depicted—it's apparent they absorbed some of the real-life prisoner's pain. The raw emotion in the film is palpable.

The detention is referred to as a night in the film's title, as hostages Mujica, Rosencof, and Huidobro were moved to over 40 secret locations over the years—mostly underground without any natural light. Rosencof and Huidobro developed a method of communicating by tapping on the wall quietly as their cells were often near each other. The military intended to keep their whereabouts impossible to track so the Tupas couldn't be rescued.

The military regime had reason to fear that the imprisoned Tupas would escape. In 1971, 38 female Tupas escaped captivity in what's known as the Star Operation. Among the liberated women was Lucía Topolansky who became a senator and is currently the vice president of Uruguay. She's also married to Mujica. Mujica himself escaped jail twice by digging tunnels with other inmates. 100 Tupas escaped from Punta Carretas Prison in 1971, including Mujica.

Military guards deprived inmates of all basic human rights through various torturous methods. They were tormented into mental breakdowns. Baths, sunlight, human contact, and complete meals were a rarity.  Exercise was strictly forbidden, and even when their cells were of considerable size, finite spaces would be indicated by lines on the ground. They were essentially left to rot. While the prisoners' psyches often faltered, they never lost their alma, which supported their sheer determination to survive. The prisoners lived up to the Uruguayan phrase garra charrúa—meaning to prosper in the face of certain death.




Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American travel writer and full-time globetrotter sharing her adventures on Miss Filatelista. She travels to develop her own worldview and has explored over 50 countries. Passionate about sustainable travel she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities.

You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.