Argentine director Santiago Mitre’s courtroom drama, Argentina, 1985 (2022), is an unsettling film that exposes mankind’s propensity for cruelty. Would it be as disturbing to a certain viewership were it not for the 6 January 2021 capitol attacks, when supporters of Donald Trump attempted to overthrow the US government? Or when we learn of voter suppression tactics by the UK Conservative government, motivated by exaggerated claims of voter fraud? Or the ongoing attempts in societies throughout the world to crush free speech, protests, and strikes?
When I ask this question, it’s the point that western democracies, such as the one I’ve grown up in and have been surrounded by, seemingly rest easy with the belief that democracy in their country is secure. Perhaps as we begin to witness the fragility of our democracies, and as our freedoms are eroded from within, Mitre’s film about the Trial of the Juntas, is increasingly unnerving.
Following the collapse of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional dictatorship in 1983, after seven years in power, the newly elected President Raúl Alfonsín called for a trial of the military leaders. Dramatising the real-life event, Mitre and his co-writer Mariano Llinás and their collaborator Martín Mauregui imbue Argentina, 1985 with unexpected humorous beats, especially from the charismatic lead prosecutor Julio César Strassera, played by Ricardo Darín. The humor doesn’t feel out of place or disrespectful to the horrific realities of the kidnappings and the people disappeared by the military regime.
In light of the fact that these prosecutions are ongoing to this day, the filmmakers temper their dramatisation, yielding to moments of success in holding the regime to account but avoiding the finality of triumph. Instead, Argentina, 1985 is a film that reveals the beginning of a journey yet to reach its end. What is achieved, and cannot be emphasised enough, is that a voice is given to the victims of the crimes the regime orchestrated between 1976 and 1983.
Two of the director’s previous films have been drawn towards the political, albeit with a more dramatic licence. The Student (El estudiante, 2011), tells the story of a young man disinterested in his studies or the active politics of the university. Instead, his seeming interest in politics is a ploy to get close to a politically-minded teacher he’s attracted to. Meanwhile, in The Summit (La Cordillera, 2017), the Argentine president confronts sensitive political and family issues that intertwine to complicate his choices.
In conversation with PopMatters at the BFI London Film Festival 2022, where it played in the Official Competition, Mitre reflects on Argentina, 1985 as a response to his fears for democracy worldwide. He speaks about his hopes to inspire people to fight for their political freedom and the necessity to build this filmic memory of his country.
The deputy prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo (Pedro Lanzani) tells Strassera that a young team will not be as susceptible to the inevitable accusations of communist ideology and other slurs. You were born in 1980. Do you personally connect with this idea of youth taking a proactive role in continuing to confront your country’s past?
This was a huge event in Argentina’s history, and there were many layers and difficult things to understand. There was a moment when I realised that most of the people in the justice [system] were afraid. They didn’t want a trial because some of the justices worked under the dictatorship and had remained silent.
Strassera needed to work with these youngsters and build a team. They were the ones who took care of the investigation and contacted the witnesses. Strassera didn’t do anything during the dictatorship, but afterward, he had an opportunity. The union between him and these young people was a strong image to give Argentina of 2022 and the world. I realised this would be my point of view in the film.
It’s a film that’s building a memory of a country, which is useful not only to remember but to help us avoid making the same mistakes again. I realised, however, that young people didn’t remember this event as they should, so [Argentina, 1985] became helpful in building this memory.
The other character I love, one of the key people in the film, is Strassera’s son, Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena). Their relationship and how they talk to one another raises the question, who are we doing this film for? For this boy, or for all the other boys that need to understand how democracy is built on the basis of justice and what’s good for society.
Argentina, 1985 is an exploration of fear, specifically how it paralyses and makes people complicit in crimes that are against their better natures. There’s a distinction between those that act out of malice and those out of fear.
I was born in the ’80s, and I grew up with a democracy. The trial was held when President Raúl Alfonsín sought to judge the dictators in the courtroom, but then democracy happened. We’d come from a hundred years of one dictatorship after another, of pulling down governments as if they were nothing.
Respect for democracy was not in the hearts of many people at the time. They were afraid, and I can understand the feeling. They felt that the trial could provoke another military coup. Democracy was very young in Argentina, and the country needed to learn how to be a new democracy after the terrible years of these bloody dictatorships.
It was not something we could avoid in the film, and I feel it in the characters. At some point, they’re afraid and not sure if they’ll succeed. Talking to the people on the real prosecution team, I learned that, at some point, it was such a big workload that they didn’t have time to be afraid. They needed to find the proof and ensure the witnesses were protected, so they had to dismiss their fear. It’s not that they were brave, they were working hard.
Argentina, 1985 is also about this hardworking group of people that achieved something good for justice and helped build Argentina’s new democracy. It’s something that we’re taking for granted now, and we should not because of all the ways we’re seeing people trying to tear down democracies around the world.
I’m reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ line in Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator (2000) about the fragility of a republic. Democracies themselves are fragile things that need to be nurtured and protected.
[…] I hope this film can put the values of democracy to the forefront again so that we all understand that it’s not something we can blame on politicians, but society needs to value democracy and fight for it. Argentina, 1985 is a film about an Argentine event, but by showing the film in different countries, I realise many audiences can relate to it because of the fragility of democracy we’re seeing nowadays.
Historical films are emotionally provocative, building to a triumphant moment. The Trial of the Juntas is still ongoing, and Argentina, 1985 is respectful that the trial is but the beginning of a journey. That said, it’s not without drama and moments of triumph, but it never forgets itself.
It was something that we understood that we had to do because this trial is the beginning of something that luckily keeps on going. We couldn’t make a happy ending because it’s only the beginning, and that’s why Strassera says there’s a lot of work to do. These words look to the future and recognise the work that judges and prosecutors are still doing. We needed to be respectful of the real event and not over-portray the triumph because it’s not a triumph, we’re still fighting.
We live in a world dominated by visual language, but the testimonies of witnesses in Argentina, 1985 remind us of the power of words.
The heart of [Argentina, 1985] is when the witnesses start talking. […] I knew at some point I had to leave the camera on the face of someone, with no music, and listen to them. The trial was about witnesses talking, for the first time, about the atrocities they had lived, of families destroyed because of the kidnappings or people disappeared.
So I wanted to get there, and I knew that aside from the Strassera speech, there was another key moment of the film, and it had to be long. We used the exact words of Adriana Calvo de Laborde [A pregnant woman who was abducted and forced by her captors to give birth in the back of a car while blindfolded and handcuffed]. We needed to listen to her, and what she said needed to be detailed. We wanted to be respectful. The actress [Laura Paredes] is not copying her but trying to bring that moment to life.
The daughter born in that police car came to the premiere of Argentina, 1985. In one sense, she was destroyed by it, but she also hugged us and thanked us for sharing that small story. It represents an understanding of these events. I get emotional talking about it.
We need to remember that humanity has dark demons, and we must be vigilant of that part of our nature. There’s a temptation to think we’re morally superior to past generations. Argentina, 1985 reminds us that we need to be vigilant against such naïveté because we’re never far removed from atrocities.
Many people have asked me why I chose to do Argentina, 1985 at this moment. I don’t know why. It’s probably because I’m afraid of what I’m seeing everywhere.
[…] I wanted to put the film out into the world, not only in Argentina. It’s relevant because we need to fight back against all of these disrespectful democracies. This is a moment when I feel filmmakers need to get into politics again, even if they’re trying to entertain.
It is important that Argentina, 1985 is interesting and entertaining. If you only talk about politics, then you might not go as deep as you need to with these important subjects.
Argentina, 1985 is available to stream on Amazon Video.