Berlin 2023

The Trial review – essential chronicle of Argentina’s recent, bloody history

Ulises de la Orden's three-hour documentary about the 1985 trial of the country's military junta is an incredible feat of filmmaking

The 1985 trials of the Argentinian military junta put on the dock nine men who at various points led the government which ruled and oppressed the country between 1976 and 1983, disappearing and killing some 30,000 citizens, and kidnapping and torturing several thousands more. These trials were fully recorded by TV crews  – 530 hours of footage over several months. At the time, the junta went to great efforts to cover their tracks, so the prosecution had to rely on witnesses – those who had survived, and the loved ones of those who hadn’t. Here, those 530 hours form the sole basis of this three-hour documentary by Ulises de la Orden – no other material is used save for summary text at the start and end.

The trials themselves have already been fictionalised in the film Argentina, 1985, which lifted parts verbatim from the records, recognisable here. That film used Hollywood tropes and structures to tell a fairly standard courtroom drama, but it does so to aim at the rafters: as mass an audience as possible, for better or worse.

The dryness of The Trial’s presentation gives the historical record a much deeper impact. The three hours are spread into 18 chapters, and after opening formalities, we are dropped into witness testimony, often grouped by theme, rarely delving at length into any one individual’s testimony. It leads to a certain cascade effect, groups of witnesses telling similarly tragic stories and details over and over again – a litany of structured and deliberate suffering.

It is a side-effect of the structure of the court-room itself and where cameras could be placed, but we’re not able to see the witnesses’ faces; they’re filmed from a three-quarters-behind angle, though the faces of the prosecution, judges’ council, and defence are all visible. The witnesses are not anonymous – they are all named in the credits and the court records are all public domain – but it does afford them a measure of privacy, as they retell extremely painful and distressing memories. We are forced to listen to the words and regard their nature, and not gaze voyeuristically at their teary faces.

In sticking only to footage of the trial itself, the film frees itself from having to delve into the politics and context of wider Argentinian history. This allows the primary focus to be on the witness testimony and the apparatus of state terror, though we are also privy to the bad faith complaints from the defence, mostly aimed at questioning the legitimacy of the court, the prosecution and especially the witnesses, setting up a narrative of martyrdom for themselves decades down the line, a move that’s been firmly in the far-right playbook ever since.

Of course, the defence itself was partially successful: of the nine, only two were given life sentences, three were given 17, 8 and 4 and a half years respectively, and four were acquitted. These facts hang in the background, summarised in the film’s closing texts. The law and the courtroom are imperfect beasts, given to ideological sways – but the sanctity of the public record acts as some kind of buttress. The patterns of editing here reveal a horrendous, harrowing crime, an act of genocide against the Argentinian people (one directive was even labelled “the Final Solution”). For anyone with an interest in world history, this is incredible filmmaking.

The Trial was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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