Review: The Trial
- BERLINALE 2023: Argentinian director Ulises de la Orden went through 530 hours of historical footage to craft a moving edit of one of the most important Latin American court trials
Looking back at the Argentinian military dictatorship from 1976-1983 is proving popular in cinema at present. Only last September, Argentina, 1985 by Santiago Mitre premiered at the 79th Venice Film Festival. It recounted the story of prosecutors Julio César Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo, who charged nine former leaders in a court trial lasting from April-December 1985. Now, director Ulises de la Orden is going right to the source itself. His documentary The Trial [+see also:
film profile], which premiered at the 73rd Berlinale, in Forum, is a carefully curated and emotional supercut of the actual archive material.
de la Orden sorts the 530 hours of footage into themes, divided into 18 chapters, such as the thousands of citizens disappearing, their ejection from planes over the ocean, the raping of women, the international incidents with the United Nations and other nationalities, and the secret torture prison at the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA). Even with the dictatorship gone, there is an ongoing debate about who a subversive group member was, and whether the military was actually protecting its citizens.
This is the point that Strassera and Ocampo keep making. This was a regime that not only committed crimes against humanity; it was a regime that took from thousands of people the very thing that Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Eduardo Massera, Roberto Eduardo Viola, Armando Lambruschini, Orlando Ramón Agosti, Omar Graffigna, Leopoldo Galtieri, Jorge Anaya and Basilio Lami Dozo are now receiving publicly: a fair trial, a jury hearing their case, a defence team arguing their side.
As in the decades before, most famously in the Nazi trials, certain patterns repeat themselves. The accused do not accept the authority of the court. They feel discriminated against. They didn’t give any orders. And then there are the smirks – those bemused smiles that the jurors keep calling out, leading to threats to have the accused removed from the room.
But de la Orden does not let the culprits steal the narrative. He is more interested in the victims, the witnesses and the relatives. This movie is about them telling their stories, recounting their memories, and this increasingly unveils a pattern of power abuse, fear of fellow citizens and a general disregard for life. As the camera crew on location filmed most of these witnesses from behind their backs, with only the occasional glance at a shaken or crying face, there is a powerful anonymity to the testimonies. These might be a few stories out of millions, but they stand for the many unheard, the many lost.
Besides intercutting with the smug faces of the defence and the occasionally bewildered looks of the prosecutors, The Trial also includes moments of uproar in the courtroom – people shouting, booing, clapping or walking out of the room. Much has been said about the German Nazi trials, about how witnesses were ridiculed or collapsed when they saw their oppressors. Here, there is a sense of people seeking justice and accountability. That may be because the court is filled with the regime’s victims, rather than its perpetrators and followers. But the fact that the judges took the tapes to Oslo in 1988 for safekeeping during the upheavals shows how fragile even these historic milestones can be.
Nunca más – never again – was the chant of the people. For Argentina, it has worked so far: they are celebrating 40 years of democracy this year. It’s a gift, as we see today, that can be as fragile as its historical evidence.
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