"History was not made by guys like me." So says Julio César Strassera (as played by the legendary Argentine actor Ricardo Darín), a real-life public prosecutor who did, in fact, make history as someone at the center of one of the most significant trials in democratic history. Strassera is the focus of co-writer and director Santiago Mitre's latest film, Argentina, 1985, a dramatic recounting of the country's Trial of the Juntas.
The first major war crimes trial since 1945's Nuremberg trials, the Trail of the Juntas took place after Argentina ended its bloody military dictatorship in 1983, ending the tyrannical former leaders' reign of kidnappings, torture, forced disappearance, and murder of anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 people who dared to question their authority.
"Not too many people in my country remember the trial," Mitre tells A.frame. "But that's what cinema can do — to bring light to some episodes of the history of the country, and to collaborate on the building of a memory. And, in this case, in the period we are living where societies are so divided… to tell this story about how hard it was to build a new democracy in Argentina, I think it's a topic that is especially relevant nowadays."
The military dictators were tried in civilian court, a monumental task that fell on the reluctant shoulders of lead prosecutor Strassera and his young co-counsel, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). Argentina, 1985 follows the unlikely heroes as they assemble hundreds of cases and witness testimony about the atrocities committed, putting themselves and their families at risk in the process.
In a conversation with A.frame, Mitre expands on his personal connection to the real events, blending history and cinema, and the reaction to the film from his native Argentina.
A.frame: As a filmmaker, is part of why you wanted to tell this story because you lived through this time, even though you were quite young when it happened?
I was four years old. I don't have much memories of the time, though I grew up in the '80s. But my mother has worked in justice her whole life. So, I was raised in the values and the importance of justice to build a strong society and a democratic society. She also knew Strassera, the main character, and I heard many stories about him, about his personality; [he was] a grumpy, funny, complaining about everything — but also very nice and charming— person. So, I always suspected that I could find a film on that person and on that trial.
How did you prepare your actors to play these real-life heroes?
I didn't want them to imitate. I wanted a film that was honest, and that was respectful, and that portrayed the events with precision, but I didn't want them to overplay the resemblance of the characters. The subject is big enough, and we needed to be very clear on the telling of this story. The characters are persons who existed and they were great, but cinema needs to work with its own tools, so you don't need to go to the exact personification of the character. I think Ricardo was very clever, and he was the one who told me that he was going to feel comfortable and was going to be able to bring the event and bring Strassera back to life in a cinematic way. He could find the ways to relate himself as a human being to Strassera as a human being, so we can build the humanistic part of the film to be more important. We understood that the event was more important than everything, so to be subtle and to recreate the event with our tools was better than to replicate everything exactly as it was.
What went into recreating the Argentina and Buenos Aries of the 1980s?
Well, it was very difficult! [Laughs] I didn't realize how much time had passed until I started the production and we needed to go to see the locations and everything looked so different in the city. So, it was very tough. Luckily, we had the chance to shoot in the real Palace of Justice and in the real courtroom, which is a historical building in a historical place, so it hasn't changed that much. But, when it came to the city, it was a major effort by everyone, by the cinematographer, by the production designer. It was a lot more difficult than what I expected.
But, in the same way, we wanted the film to feel accurate to the '80s, but also, it needed to feel like an actual film. The '85 needed to resonate in 2022, like something that's not that far away. We used subtle things that helped us to build the atmosphere, like the cassettes, and the radios, and the old phones, but would not [emphasize] over-portraying the '80s. We felt that we needed to be very subtle so as not to distract people who watch the film, because this subject was already... It's already a lot! We needed to be subtle and precise, more than create a spectacular.
You use real footage and photos from the trial within the film. How did you decide where and when you wanted to do that?
The film is based on true events but we are revealing many aspects of the backstory of the trial. But when the trial has started and we listened to the witnesses and the horror they lived in the kidnaps, the tortures, I felt that the cinema needed to be super simple, to let the voices and bravery of the testimonies be the main thing. The dialogue is exactly the same thing that the people at the trial said. At the time, the trial was shot from the back, because it was dangerous for the people to be testifying in the trial. The people that tortured them were still free at the [time], so, a way to protect them was to shoot them from the back so that you don't see the faces. For me, it was important to go to the other side and to see the pain, the anger that they were expressing, for the first time. For Argentina to know.
At the same time, I wanted to [use] those images and those testimonies that were part of the history and memory of the trial. So, we designed a system with my DP, Javier Julia. We shot everything with our camera, which was an ALEXA LF, and also the U-matic camera, which was the same camera that was used for the broadcast of the trial. That helped us to mix the textures going from the ALEXA to the U-matic, and then, going straight to the original footage, which is something that I think keeps the truth of what the film is telling.
The final indictment as read by Strassera is almost 10 minutes long, but it's absolutely riveting. How did you decide to assemble it the way you did?
It was the most important thing in the film, because this film was about this prosecutor and the indictment is a historical piece. But we had a problem. When you [think about] trial films, the lawyer or the prosecutor is walking around and pointing to the criminals and to the jury and whatever and doing, like, acting things. But, in this case, it was just a guy sitting at a desk, reading a paper. [Laughs] So, it was difficult bringing the emotion and power that the speech and not lose the cinematic power.
When I went to the courtroom for the first time, I sat at the desk where Strassera was seated, and then, I sat on a chair where the [military defendants] were seated, and I realized that Strassera was less than a meter away from [Lt. General Jorge] Videla. They could almost touch each other. So, I understood that that was the tension that this scene could have. Strassera was talking about those horrific crimes almost in the face of the guys who ran the dictatorship. I think that we did it right. It was accurate to the way it happened and also, it's still moving and very cinematic. Of course, we couldn't have done that without the huge talent of Ricardo, who is amazing. And he can do anything, even sitting on a chair and with a paper in his hand.
The film has opened in your home country, Argentina. What has the reaction been like?
It's been amazing. It was important that the film was shown in cinemas, because this film is talking about a collective achievement. So, to share the collective experience of watching this collective achievement all together in a screening room, it's something that I think empowers even more the values of the film. This film was meant to be shown in a theater and Amazon was great in letting us do that and to understand that this film needed that for the experience.
By Elizabeth Stanton