Jump directly to the page contents

From Luis Puenzo’s Oscar-winning film La historia oficial (The Official Story, 1985) via Jonathan Perel’s CAMUFLAJE (Camouflage, Forum 2022) all the way to Carlos Echeverría’s JUAN, COMO SI NADA HUBIERA SUCEDIDO (1985), Lita Stantic’s UN MURO DE SILENCIO (A Wall of Silence, 1993) and Marco Bechis’ GARAGE OLIMPO (Olympic Garage, 1999), there have been a number of Argentinean films – both fiction and documentary – that have dealt with the country’s last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Within this extensive body of work, Albertina Carri’s LOS RUBIOS (The Blonds, 2003) and Nicolás Prividera’s M (2007) stand out, not so much because both directors are children of desaparecidos, people who were “disappeared” by the dictatorship, or because they each approach the topic from their own intensely personal perspective, but rather for having started debates that are far from over.

Films by the Children of the Disappeared

Carri’s film, for example, was not strictly about her parents (which annoyed many people of that generation), but focused instead on the twisting and winding pathways of memory and the construction of individual identity. “I didn’t want viewers to leave the movie theatre with the illusion that they could get to know my parents by watching LOS RUBIOS, as the film is based on the impossibility of making a truthful documentary reconstruction.”

Unlike this “fiction of memory,” as Carri herself defines LOS RUBIOS, M does not disavow its documentary nature, although it does take the liberty of introducing various narrative elements and signs from the world of fiction. In fact, Prividera's construction of himself as a character as a kind of private investigator is more than simply a way of "putting his body" in the film; it also serves to assert the subjectivity of his gaze, which shows his successes – as well as his failures and disappointments – in investigating his mother's forced disappearance.

A Trial as the Foundational Act of the Return to Democracy

All of these films become topical again and acquire fresh significance with the release of EL JUICIO by Ulises de la Orden, which receives its world premiere at the 2023 edition of the Berlinale Forum, forty years after democracy was returned to Argentina. There has perhaps been no other film about the Argentinean civilian-military dictatorship made to date that is so tangible, precise, and comprehensive at the same time. And the reason for this specificity lies in the very nature of EL JUICIO. EL JUICIO works solely and exclusively with the footage recorded between April 22 and December 9, 1985 by state television channel Argentina Televisora Color (ATC) of the trial known as the Juicio a las Juntas Militares, or “The Trial of the Military Juntas,” in which nine high-ranking military chiefs were tried for the most severe violations of human rights. Based on the analysis of 709 cases, it was an unprecedented, landmark legal action in Latin America, which concluded with serious convictions for five of the nine defendants (two of whom received life sentences) and became a key event in the history of the new Argentine democracy. The words Nunca más (“Never again”) uttered by prosecutor Julio César Strassera in his closing arguments – which he had taken from the title of the investigative report by the National Commission on the Disappearance of People (CONADEP) published the previous year – remain a key slogan for human rights organisations to this day in Argentina and beyond.

"Director Ulises de la Orden and his editor Alberto Ponce constructed a genuine cinematographic narrative of the unprecedented trial of which only fragments have received widespread public circulation to date."

For all the political and judicial progress and setbacks of the last almost four decades, this trial has remained a cornerstone in terms of trying and punishing people guilty of crimes against humanity in civil courts, with all the accompanying constitutional guarantees. As the film’s final credits mention, 1,058 individuals had been convicted, 964 died during their trials and 22 remain at large at the time of the film’s completion because of the ongoing fight being waged by human rights organisations. To this day, many legal proceedings are still being brought across the country using the regular justice system, before regular judges and courts.

Director Ulises de la Orden and his editor Alberto Ponce have accomplished two important things. First, they were able to reconstruct this historic trial using 530 hours of uncut footage recorded on U-Matic cassettes, which have been stored in Norway’s parliament building since 1988 by court order to guarantee their safety. But their greater achievement lies in having constructed a genuine cinematographic narrative that gives a full account – with all the infinite accompanying nuances – of everything that was at stake in this unprecedented trial, of which only fragments have received widespread public circulation to date. In fact, during the trial itself, when the democratic constitutional order was still fragile and anonymous threats were all too common, the state television channel only broadcast a daily summary of the proceedings during its news programme that was just three minutes long and only consisted of images without sound. Only the reading of the verdict was broadcast in its entirety, with both image and sound.

The Choral vs. the Individual

The fiction film ARGENTINA, 1985, which was directed by Santiago Mitre and stars Ricardo Darín, one of the most popular actors in the Spanish-speaking world, also recounts this same trial. Selected for the Official Competition of the 2022 Venice Film Festival, nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film and distributed worldwide via Amazon Prime Video, it has played a huge role in generating a renewed sense of importance for the event among younger generations of Argentineans. Mitre's film uses the standard Hollywood narrative framework: it has a hero (the prosecutor Strassera, played by Darín) and cleaves close to the classic genre of the "courtroom drama" to forge an epic of an everyman facing extraordinary circumstances.

For its part, the documentary EL JUICIO was conceived as a choral work, in which the prosecutor Strassera and his assistant Luis Moreno Ocampo have an important voice, but by no means the only one. There are many others who also play an active role in this trial, including the survivors who come to testify, the defendants, their attorneys and the judges, as well as the relatives of the victims and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are seated in the gallery.

As far as precedents for Ulises de la Orden’s film are concerned, the work of Sergei Loznitsa comes to mind, even if it doesn’t necessarily offer the best comparison. His extraordinary film PROCESS (The Trial, 2018), which explores Stalin’s first Moscow show courts, is more about denouncing their manipulations than describing the singular nature of one specific trial in the way the Argentinean film does. More relevant parallels can be found in the Brazilian film O PROCESSO (The Trial, Berlinale 2018) by María Augusta Ramos, which explores the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, or, to an even greater extent, Eyal Sivan’s UN SPÉCIALISTE (A Specialist, Berlinale 1999), which is about Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.

"The exhaustiveness of EL JUICIO is one of its great achievements, because there are few facts concerning the dictatorship and its modus operandi that the film does not cover."

Like Ulises de la Orden’s film, Sivan’s film is also based on a single audiovisual record that is hundreds of hours long. It too has many different participants in one single setting, that of the courtroom: the prosecutor, the defence attorney, the judges, and, of course, the defendant. But in EL JUICIO, there are nine defendants, not just one, and even though several of them (or their numerous attorneys) victimised themselves the same way that Eichmann did, this was not the case for main defendants Jorge Rafael Videla and Emilio Eduardo Massera, who were sentenced to life imprisonment, claimed responsibility for their actions and died in captivity (Videla in his cell in 2013 and Massera at the Naval Hospital in 2010).

EL JUICIO explicitly shows how these men didn’t just scorn the legal proceedings to which they were being subjected (and which they had denied to their victims), but also showed contempt for the very lives of the people they had systematically kidnapped, tortured and assassinated. They gave a complicit, mocking laugh when they entered the courtroom, which a nameless cameraman of the state television service happened to capture, a gesture that the director and his editor have now recovered to give it its full, sinister significance. EL JUICIO repeatedly uncovers and makes use of these small, yet revealing moments, even though the television cameras were always located behind the defendants and the victims, presumably to protect their privacy during the trial and to emphasise simple recording over spectacle.

Selecting from and Editing a Vast Quantity of Material

In his book “Eloge de la désobéissance: A propos d'un ‘spécialiste’: Adolf Eichmann”, Eyal Sivan warns that “every framing is already a choice, and as such, an act of censorship”. He goes on to emphasise that “choosing is ultimately a question of eliminating”, noting that to make his film, he had to structure it into a dozen “frames” as he called them. In his book, Sivan explains that the construction and sequencing of these frames “sought both to give them their own personality within the setting and rhythm of the plot and to recreate the imaginary time of the trial through the artifice of editing.”

Ulises de la Orden also arrived at the same conclusion, albeit in a different way given the obvious discrepancy between the source materials, organising the three hours that make up EL JUICIO into 18 chapters, each one with its own title. The Argentinean director views his work in a similar fashion: “The first cut of EL JUICIO was eight hours long, and even at that point, we still had a lot of material that was hard to eliminate. It was as if every minute we were cutting meant that we weren’t giving an account of something. The other difficulty was that we did not want the movie to be a mere sequence of facts, but rather a narrative divided into chapters, each of which would address a specific issue. That was the guiding principle that yielded this final, three-hour version.”

This exhaustiveness of EL JUICIO is one of its great achievements, because there are few facts concerning the dictatorship and its modus operandi that the film does not cover. From the forced disappearance of victims and the plundering of their possessions, the “death flights,” slave labour to the torturing of children and pregnant women and the theft of infants, an entire catalogue of hell on earth is brought forth in the testimonies given in EL JUICIO. And this included the connivance of the Catholic Church and the self-serving complicity of certain civilian stakeholders, an issue that was specifically taken up in Jonathan Perel’s documentary RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL (Corporate Responsibility), which screened at the 2020 Forum.

The Continuing Presence of Past Crimes in Argentina

Perel also worked with documentary material as valuable as it was poorly distributed, in the latter case even less so than the records of the Trial of the Juntas, of which a few clips had at least already been circulated. Based on the book “Responsabilidad empresarial en delitos de lesa humanidad. Represión a trabajadores durante el terrorismo de Estado”, which was published in 2015 by the Argentinean Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (and has barely been in circulation since then), Perel literally shows what has remained out in the open without anyone really seeing: the factories and industrial complexes that remain fully operational today and which were used between 1976 and 1983 as hidden centres for repression, kidnapping, torture, forced disappearances and execution.

Perel’s film is also organised into chapters, which bear the names and logos of the companies in question – Ford, Fiat, Mercedes Benz, Alpargatas, Molinos Río de la Plata, Acindar and Loma Negra, to name some of the most glaring examples – and works by accumulation. It is through a reiteration of facts, one after the other, that RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL reveals the shared, systematic approach followed by these companies, who played a major role in how the dictatorship operated and was perpetuated. While contributing to the regime by paying into purported patriotic funds, they lowered their labour costs by “eradicating negative elements” (the disappeared were dismissed for not appearing at work, leaving their families on the street). At the same time, they brazenly stuffed their coffers by converting millions of dollars of their own privately contracted loans into public debt. In its own way, EL JUICIO also allows its testimonies to accumulate to create a narrative that proceeds by making sense of and revealing the full criminal dimension of events. The fact that Ulises de la Orden also managed to recover the sort of lost moments considered dead time according to television logic – Videla reading “The Seven Last Words from the Cross” in the middle of the hearing before his conviction, a histrionic defence attorney thumbing through a newspaper distractedly as a sign of his contempt – confirms that even the roughest materials merit a cinematographic treatment that can give them new eloquence in speaking about key facts of our past.

Luciano Monteagudo is a curator and film critic based in Buenos Aires and has worked as a programming consultant for the Berlinale Forum since 2019.

Translated from the Spanish by Claudio Cambon


Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur