From April 29, Yosi, the Regretful Spy (Iosi, el espía arrepentido), the Amazon Original series from Argentina directed by Daniel Burman and Sebastián Borensztein, and produced by Oficina Burman (The Mediapro Studio), has been available on Prime Video in over 240 countries and territories. Based on real events, it tells the story of José Pérez, alias Yosi, an agent in Argentina’s intelligence service who infiltrates the Jewish community in Buenos Aires in the 80s with the mission of dismantling an alleged plot – called the Andinia Plan – to set up a Jewish state in the south of Argentina. As time goes by, Yosi realizes there is no such plan, but what is very real is an Argentine arms trafficking organization, one that years later will be linked to the bombings of the Israeli embassy, in 1992, and the Jewish community center (AMIA) building, in 1994. We speak with Daniel Burman (Buenos Aires, 1973), showrunner for this fast-paced, eight-episode story that is also a recounting of the hidden history of a country, an intimate portrait of a redeemed man, and an action series.

When did the idea to make Yosi, the Regretful Spy come to you? Did you fall in love straight away with the book by Horacio Lutzky and Miriam Lewin?

It was the book that found me, six years ago. Just on looking at the cover and the back cover I knew it was a story that had to be told. Sebastián Borensztein and I stayed pretty faithful to the historical facts behind this extraordinary tale of redemption, and we worked hard on the character motivations. In his inner journey, Yosi unexpectedly finds a family that welcomes him into its fold. But it’s a complex, contradiction-riddled journey in the context of a political scandal and what was Argentina’s worst criminal conspiracy, one that gave rise to the most tragic attacks our country has seen.

Is it still difficult to dig into Argentina’s dark past? Were you advised against delving into the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and on the building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994, in particular?

Yes, a lot of people who said to me, “What are you doing it for?” And I’d say, “Why not? How long can we keep living with this crap hidden under the carpet?” I’ve been in this industry for 25 years and sometimes you feel that what you do is, in the end, a bit banal, it appears and then it disappears. Here, in addition to providing entertainment and generating content, I felt the need to be able to raise a flag, to use a stoplight or some kind of warning to say: “We’re going about our lives as if this was nothing.” In fact, even today, when I go abroad and people ask me who was to blame for the attacks, I still can’t give them an answer. But it was a story I had to tell and a series I had to make.

Compared to how things are today, you portray a rather primitive form of espionage. In 2022, cyber spying is the rule and everything is more swift. In the twenty-first century, Yosi would have completed his mission much faster. And he would have realized sooner that he had fallen victim to entrapment and deception.

Yes, what fascinates me about the Argentine espionage that the series depicts is that it is very basic. Unlike James Bond, who had the latest Aston Martin in the garage, here they just made do with what they had.

Jews and Judaism are recurring themes in your work. I am particularly a fan of one of the films you directed, Lost Embrace (2004), in which Judaism was already an element.

Yes, it’s a theme that is ever-present, but for me it’s something that’s very natural. I always say, even a bit provocatively, that I’m Jewish and, what’s more, I don’t even have to try, ha ha. It’s part of my identity, of who I am, of my culture. Everything I do carries that imprint.

Was it dizzying having the series premiere in over 240 countries and territories at the same time? Or are you used to it?

I don’t get used to anything, luckily. Everything seems like an amazing miracle to me. Like making a living from this profession and being able to tell stories! When I was little, and something had happened to me at school, there was nothing like coming home, knocking on the door, hearing my mother’s footsteps approaching, and knowing that in a few seconds, someone would open the door and listen to what I had to tell them! Now I make series and tell stories with that very same anticipation – someone is about to come and open the door – and when that door opens in 240 countries around the world all at once, that feeling is multiplied exponentially.

‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy’.

In Yosi, the Regretful Spy, did you like combining the action scenes and spectacular shots with the more intimate and introspective sequences? Combining gunfire, pursuits and fights with topics like parenthood, sexism and love?

I really enjoy the intimate scenes, but I’m also really enjoying learning how to shoot action sequences.

At times, the series has the feel of a western, even the soundtrack does. Was that intended?

I am a fan of both Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. My dream was to see Morricone live in concert, but I never did.

Let’s talk about the cast. Apart from being an excellent actor, it’s unbelievable how Gustavo Bassani ages in his role as Yosi. That’s a lot of years! Where and how did you discover him?

I found him in a very small theater called Microteatro in Buenos Aires. It had to be a new face. He was a great find, but it puzzled me – how could he be such a good actor and not be known? Something didn’t add up. Gustavo is extraordinary, a wonderful person and a highly exceptional actor.

Then there’s the actresses, from Natalia Oreiro to Carla Quevedo, Mercedes Morán and Mirella Pascual. Argentine and Uruguayan actors and actresses are the best in the world. And that’s not a question, it’s a categorical statement.

Ha ha, indeed, the cast is wonderful, they’ve done a great job and it’s a dream line-up. They are very intelligent and were at great pains to understand their roles. Well before they went in front of the camera, they had already done incredible preparatory work on their characters and on their dramatic function within the plot.

Was the recreation of the era complicated? Costumes, hairstyles, streets, cars, buildings, and so on, from the 80s and 90s. Did you spend a lot on the setting?

A lot less than it seems! Despite the pandemic, we were lucky enough to be able to work with people who are meticulous about staging and art direction, all under the eye of Marcelo Salvioli, an extraordinary artist. It was easy to detect any element we saw on screen that was out of place. We enjoyed a lot of freedom in our recreation of that era.

Since 2016, with The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once), you haven’t made a movie, instead you’ve been dedicating yourself exclusively to television, directing Supermax, Edha and now Yosi, and creating other series, such as Victoria Small (Pequeña Victoria) and Cecilia. Has that small, independent and sensitive filmmaker of the past been gobbled up and subsumed by the respected, powerful and intelligent showrunner of today? Or is he still there somewhere, waiting restlessly?

Yes, yes, he’s still in there. I remain someone who’s driven to tell stories ‒ in the most tender and candid way possible ‒ in order to connect with people and capture their attention. Oh, and don’t remind me of how long it’s been since I directed a movie – I might run off and make one right now! And if not now, sooner or later it’s definitely going to happen.

Has the world of television changed a lot in recent years, with the emergence of platforms, with new technology, bigger budgets and the introduction of different types of storylines and narratives? Has it become a monster, but one you can control or perhaps become an ally of? Do you miss the independent cinema in which you developed as an artist?

I don’t think the television of today is a monster. I have my own particular and completely unromantic view of that independent cinema in which I got my start. It wasn’t all that independent. At the end of the day, you would sit with a monster, which was the exhibitor, and they would decide if they were going to put your film on a screen or not. And then you had to pray for it not to rain, for there to be no soccer and for politics not to get in the way. It was very difficult to achieve the miracle of people going to the movies. A full cinema is wonderful, an unbeatable experience, but while working for the platforms, they have never questioned me on anything, they’ve always given me a completely free hand. There are many myths about the tyranny of the platforms but no algorithm has ever told me what kind of characters I have to put in a series. In Yosi, I even managed to put an unknown, without the usual thousands of social media followers, in the starring role. The platform executives are the kind of people who, when they get excited about a story, want it to be told well.

Are you happy with the public and critical reception Yosi has received?

The reviews have been very positive, but what matters to me is the impact on people. Hearing a taxi driver talk about the series. That the public recovers part of Argentina’s history. It’s amazing what’s happening with the series, absolutely amazing. I’ve done a lot of things in my career, but what’s occurring with Yosi is incredible.

Would it be fair to describe Yosi as a wounded and wary man, wearing a lot of armor, who has to discover and accept his sensitivity, without ever being able to let his guard down? He passes himself off as someone else while at the same time, has to come to terms with his true personality, and take pleasure in it. At first, he’s as cold as ice.

Yes, but just like all ice cubes eventually melt, Yosi has to confront his past and show up as who he really is. And, once he does, there’s no turning back.

I really like the start of Yosi: we are in the present, and theoretically, Yosi can finally relax because he’s in friendly territory and collaborating with the law authorities by testifying. But then, no, Yosi is expelled from what we’d call his comfort zone. They were already tricking him yet again!

Absolutely. He is a person who’s always on a tightrope. He thinks he’s in a comfort zone, but it doesn’t last long.

Pere Vall
Pere Vall. Journalist covering the world of cultural and entertainment in general, specialized in cinema. Pere is a regular contributor to Time Out, Ara, RNE and Catalunya Ràdio, and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Fotogramas in Barcelona for more than 20 years. A fan of Fellini, of good, regular and bad horror movies, and of humor and comedy in general. As a child, he wanted to look like Alain Delon, and has ended with a certain resemblance to Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. Not that he’s complaining though.