The public never got to see their faces, and maybe that was for the best: the testimonies from victims of the Argentine dictatorship describing vicious torture, child theft, slave labor, murder, and other atrocities were often too much to bear.
In 1985, the Buenos Aires Federal Chamber of Appeals prosecuted the leaders of the three military juntas that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983 unleashing state terrorism on the population. It came to be known as the ‘Trial of the Juntas’. Print media covered the trial every day and public TV network Argentina Televisora Color (today TV Pública) recorded all 90 sessions of the trial using two cameras and U-matic videotapes — the very first videotape format — but only aired a soundless 3-minute excerpt every day.
Hundreds of witnesses bravely sat in court to tell their stories only a few years after the return of democracy, while many of the military officers who tortured them were still on active duty. Witnesses were seated facing the judges with their backs to the cameras, a way of preserving their identities in a context when the military was still a credible threat. Not just to democracy: the 22 defenders of the military were seated right behind them.
The trial regained international recognition recently, thanks to Santiago Mitre’s fictional depiction of the prosecution team’s efforts in Argentina, 1985, the latest Argentine film nominated for an Oscar.
Only the sentencing hearing was broadcast in full with image and sound. On December 9, 1985, Jorge Rafael Videla, the Army commander who led the coup and sat as de facto president, and Emilio Massera, head of the Navy and second in power at the first junta, were sentenced to life in prison; Orlando Agosti to 4 years and a half; Roberto Viola to 17 years; and Armando Lambruschini to 8 years. The rest of the members of the juntas, Omar Graffigna, Arturo Lami Dozo, Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, and Jorge Anaya, were all acquitted.
Documentary filmmaker Ulises de la Orden took the 530 hours of archive footage from the landmark trial of the military juntas and crafted The Trial — a powerful and devastating documentary about the first time a civilian court prosecuted and sentenced the military leaders of a genocidal dictatorship since Nuremberg.
Based on the real-life court testimonies of the landmark trial, the film premiered in Berlinale’s Forum section earlier this year. It is now playing at the Malba museum throughout April and May, and will soon be available on the Latin American film streaming platform Kinoa.tv.
A thematic journey
Divided into two main parts, the film is organized thematically, grouping different testimonies in chapters that focus on specific issues within the horrific and senseless aspects of state terrorism.
“We created our own dramatic structure freely, without following the chronology of the trial,” said De la Orden to the Buenos Aires Herald.
Rather than focusing on individual stories, which might have made the film too long, the structure followed the legal case made by prosecutor Julio Strassera.
“His goal was to prove the commanders were legally responsible for the crimes that occurred at times and places where they surely hadn’t been around,” De la Orden said. “He had to prove the systematic plan, the fact that orders were given verbally, that the task forces responded to military structures, etc.”
The cruelty and the organization of torture, the role of the Catholic church, the systematic plan to steal newborns from their disappeared parents, the regular theft of properties, the international reactions, the censorship, and the fate of the missing bodies — these are some of the topics that the film manages to describe with an educational focus:
“Our target audience was fourth and fifth-year high school students,” said De la Orden, referring to the last two years of Argentine secondary school. “And all those who were born in democracy and maybe feel this issue is ancient history.”
Unlike Lieutenant General Videla, who spent the few trial sessions he attended quietly reading the Bible, some of the Junta members are seen giving some chilling statements, justifying their actions and showing no remorse. They include Admiral Massera and General Galtieri, who led the country into the Malvinas War. Other torturers and military agents are also featured on the witness stand, explaining their actions while we hear the otherwise quiet audience members shouting at them.
With a structure that effectively sets up a brisk pace for the 180 minutes of footage, the film also puts a magnifying glass on the trial itself, with its exhaustingly long, late-night sessions and inflammatory speeches by the defendants and their attorneys. One of them, José María Orgeira, works almost as a supervillain to hero prosecutor Strassera, and was even briefly arrested for contempt of court.
“The archive footage also gives an account of the political and social climate of that time, showing the tension of those early years of a recently-recovered democracy,” De la Orden wrote in a press release. “The latent violence, the witnesses’ fear of retaliation; it’s all in the gestures, the looks, the voices of everyone involved in the trial.”
That original footage was not easy to obtain. The search for it had begun in 2013, and according to De la Orden, the public TV channel refused to collaborate for fear of political retaliation. The country’s National Archives, which has the material in its custody, even suggested he search for an existing copy held by the University of Salamanca in Spain.
“It was incredible,” he wrote. “More than three decades after the trial, it still caused fear and qualms among low-ranking officials incapable of making a decision and facing the risks,” he added.
In 2019, the director found the digitized footage in the custody of Memoria Abierta, an alliance of human rights organizations.
“We met with their team and agreed on the guidelines to work together and then we were finally able to start watching the footage,” wrote De la Orden, who described how the nine-month process was carried out alongside editor Alberto Ponce and assistant director Gisela Peláez.
Yet the material was incomplete, with some important parts missing and a few damaged tapes. The solution was the secret VHS copy the court judges themselves had shipped abroad in 1988, as a way of securing the record of that trial amidst a series of military uprisings. The copy was stored by the Norwegian Congress thanks to mediation by the Denmark-based International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation.
According to the director, working with these archive materials brought up the need for new digitization of both the U-matic footage and the VHS tapes from Norway. Hence, they are developing a project that coordinates efforts between the Argentine Federal Court and the Norway Parliament and National Library, with the support of the Ford Foundation, to unify the materials into a single master copy in 4K that will be available for the public through Memoria Abierta.
“The film is also a starting point,” De la Orden told the Herald. “If anyone wants to learn more about this, they can keep investigating.”