Keeping history alive in legal thriller ‘Argentina, 1985’

The 1985 Trial of the Juntas was a seismic moment in Argentina’s history, helping to solidify the country’s democratic future after seven years of military dictatorship. But when filmmaker Santiago Mitre started talking about making a classic political thriller about the David vs. Goliath trial, in which public prosecutors Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo tried former military leaders for war crimes, including the torture and disappearance of thousands between 1976 and 1983, he was surprised to learn that few of his peers knew much about it.

Mitre was only four years old at the time of the trial in 1985, but through his mother — who worked in justice her whole life — he’d grown up hearing stories about the trial, its importance for Argentina and anecdotes about Strassera’s unique personality (grumpy, but full of humor).

Strassera was the veteran prosecutor who reluctantly took on the case, fearful for his family and himself. Ocampo was younger and more idealistic, but also risked alienating his own prominent family, who had significant military ties. Mitre was certain that the personalities and drama of the situation would make for a great film in the vein of classic political thrillers like “All the President’s Men” and “Judgement at Nüremberg.”

“Argentina, 1985,” which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, chronicles the momentous trial, which took place under a cloud of extraordinary uncertainty and unease only two years after the dictatorship fell.

With a death toll that human rights organizations estimate at 30,000, Argentina’s dictatorship is considered Latin America’s deadliest of the 1970s and ’80s. Less than half of the dead have been recognized at the official level, however, because the military made the bodies of most of its victims disappear.

Across five months in the courtroom, during which the prosecutorial team received constant personal threats, 833 witnesses testified. Several of those testimonies are used verbatim in the film to great dramatic effect.

“It was super important to have direct contact with the people that worked on the trial,” Mitre said. “I spoke to as many as it was possible for me, because I felt that the film needed like to have this stronger human perspective. I spoke to the judges, to the people who gave testimony in the trial and of course to the people that were part of the prosecutorial team. It was very important for me for not only for knowing the facts, but to understand what they were feeling.”

He met Ocampo, portrayed by Peter Lanzani in the film, many times, and Strassera’s son, who though young at the time, was enraptured by his father’s work. The supportive, engaged Strassera family is a main focus of the narrative.

“They were all involved with Julio’s trial,” Mitre said. “It was something that was very sweet.”

Upon hearing about the project, Ricardo Darín — who had worked with Mitre before — wanted not only to play Strassera, who died in 2015, but to produce as well. Being slightly older than Mitre, he remembered the trial well, and wanted to help younger generations who were born into democracy in the country understand what happened.

“It was a very, very big deal,” Darín said through a translator. “Let’s not forget that a lot of people in a lot of parts of the society in Argentina back then, they had no idea of the horrors that had happened. This is something that was not talked about and something that was not shared. So for a lot of people, being able to see witnesses come forward and being able to hear the family members of people who were killed or tortured was an eye opener.”

The film has been well received around the world at various festivals, recently picking up the audience award in San Sebastian, and in Argentina, which submitted it to compete for best international film at the Oscars. The Oscars will narrow the international submissions to a 15-film shortlist in December, which will inform the final nominations in January.

For Mitre, though, it’s more than awards on his mind. He’s trying to help preserve and build a society’s memory.

“It was important for me as a citizen to do this film, not only as a filmmaker,” Mitre said. “It was the base of the new democracy. It was a point of reunion of the society. Many people don’t remember how hard it was to get our democracy and how important is to keep defending democracy.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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