- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Director Santiago Mitre’s much-lauded, fact-based Argentina, 1985 dramatizes the South American country’s return to democracy after suffering seven years under a military junta. The new civilian government is determined to hold the leading officers accountable for carrying out the barbaric “Dirty War” of torture, liquidation, and disappearing about thirty thousand people. Mitre’s script, cowritten with Argentines Mariano Llinás and Martín Mauregui, deeply humanizes the struggle to try the generals in the biggest war crimes case since the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.
Argentina, 1985 has very deservedly racked up accolades, winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film; three prizes, including a nomination for the Golden Lion for best picture, at the Venice Film Festival; and many other awards and nominations, most prominently being Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature Film.
Mitre’s gripping two-hour, twenty-minute masterpiece is arguably the best political feature since Costa-Gavras’s 1969 Z, which was rather uniquely nominated for the Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning in the latter category. This classic film about the assassination of Greece’s peace candidate and the Greek colonels’ overthrow of the government before they could stand trial had a major impact on Mitre.
The director reveals that fact, how he cinematically constructed his recreation of the court case that rocked the world, and much more in this candid conversation. Mitre was born in 1980 in Buenos Aires and was interviewed while in New York this year by Jacobin.
What was the role of Henry Kissinger and the CIA in Argentina’s 1976 coup and in the “Dirty War”?
The CIA supported many of the military dictatorships that put down democratic and progressive governments that were present in the region, as in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina.
Who are your cinematic influences for this film?
I was thinking a lot about All the President’s Men, with Dustin Hoffman; this is a film I love, because it’s about an important issue with great characters and great tension. There were other films whose influence you cannot track directly, but more importantly for me is The Conversation, by Francis Ford Coppola. Because of the way he used paranoia and the camera movements, it was a great film.
I loved Costa-Gavras and those political thrillers from the 1970s — Z, and many others.
But I also watched a lot of classic Hollywood films. I was thinking a lot about Frank Capra and John Ford and the way they used cinema as a tool to tell history. It was a mix of everything. Also some Argentinian films on the subject of the dictatorship were important for me as a filmmaker, like Luis Puenzo’s 1985 La Historia Oficial.
There’s a sequence in Z when the judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, charges each of the Greek colonels. Your film almost seems like what would have happened in Greece if the military junta had not overthrown the government and had stood trial.
That’s one of the examples that the judges and prosecutors used in Argentina to build a case — because there were not many antecedents in history of civil courts judging military dictators. So, they needed to build it all and try to be new.
In my case, I had the real trial [in Argentina] that happened that was so important and influential for me — to read the files and watch the tapings of the trial, to speak to everyone. But there is also a tradition in cinema that also was influential. Because it was like this magnificent event, plus cinema is what brings this story and event back to life, so people in many places can appreciate it and can discuss the subjects the film is proposing.
During the trial sequences in Argentina, 1985, did you cut in some actual historic footage from the actual trials with your actors? Did you intercut news clips?
Yes. For me it was like working in this recreation of the trial. There was something I wanted, to have a very nonfiction style; I used many procedures. Like all of the words that are said by the witnesses are verbatim, exact transcripts of what the witnesses said. All of the public things I showed during the trial are exact from what happened. At the same time, it was important for me to shoot in the real courtroom. We were lucky we were allowed to shoot there because it’s a historic building nowadays. To be seated there, in that place, with the [actors playing the] witnesses dressed up exactly as the witnesses were dressed up at that moment in ’85, was a very intense image for me. I had been watching the tapings of the original trial for months and months.
Because you know, the taping of the original trial had one characteristic, which was that the witnesses were only shown by their backs. We could only see their necks, with the judges watching them. It was a way of protecting their identities . . . and integrity. . . . Most of the people who had kidnapped or tortured them were free. . . . It was a great and brave thing to go and be a witness in that trial.
For me, when I decided how to shoot the film, how to shoot the recreation, it was clear I needed to show the faces — the faces that we could not see for forty years, so we could imagine the pain and the anger, and how difficult it was for the witnesses to sit there and talk to society in Argentina for the first time. But at the same time I had these tapings of the trial in my head all the time, so I told my director of photography, Javier Juliá, that we should also bring a U-matic camera, which was the same [type of video] camera that was used for the broadcasting of the trial. So, while we were doing our scenes, we were building U-matic shots in the exact same angle where the cameras in the original trial were put. We were making a sort of fake archive. We could do our shot and then cut to one U-matic camera, and from the U-matic camera we went to fragments of the original trial. So, during the trial we were doing that all the time, going from our shot to a U-matic shot to an archival shot.
For me, it was very important, because I wanted to be so precise in the reconstruction of the trial. You can see that we are going from ’85 to our reenactment of this trial, and it goes very fluidly. Because to talk about this trial is not to talk only about this trial. I wanted to talk about this moment of the world and the society in Argentina, also. It was a way of going back and forward in time, the way we designed with my editor [Andrés Pepe Estrada].
Prosecutor Julio César Strassera’s closing argument at the end of Argentina, 1985 is the best anti-fascist speech I’ve seen in the cinema since Charlie Chaplin’s grand finale in 1940’s The Great Dictator.
Those were his exact words. We had to tighten it up because it was a lot longer, of course. All the fragments that Ricardo Darín [the actor playing Strassera] is saying are exactly the words that Strassera used. Somebody on the internet edited both [speeches] together. You go from Strassera to Ricardo, and it’s amazing.
Ricardo was very clever in his decision; he never wanted to copy Strassera. He wanted to understand what Strassera was going through — Strassera’s fears, courage, and responsibility — through his [Ricardo’s] own sensitivity and try to live the things as if they were his own moments to bring this back to life. He didn’t want to watch too many tapes of Strassera, so as not to copy him. But at some point, when we watched this thing somebody did on the internet, editing one with the other, our picture of Strassera and the real Strassera — they’re exactly the same. It was one of these magical things that sometimes happens in cinema that are incredible.
What role did young people play in the prosecution?
For me, it was the key to the whole thing. When I was doing the research and I was working on the ideas of the film, I came to that. Luis Moreno Ocampo [portrayed by Peter Lanzani], the real one, explained to me the context of the people who were working in justice at the moment, who were not wanting to participate in the trial, because they were afraid another coup d’état would happen, because they were part of the dictatorship, or because they were named [appointed] under the dictatorship, so they were sort of supporters.
So, [the prosecution] didn’t have time, they needed to go quick, so he came to the idea of bringing the lower ranks, who were almost twenty-year-old lawyers, or not even lawyers — they were working in the justice [department] to help. And for me it was my turning point where I realized that this is a film that is going to be a strong political intervention on these days, because you see so many young people embracing undemocratic speeches or seeming to disbelieve in democracy because they have been living in democracy all of their lives and forget how hard it was for Argentina and many countries to go back to democracy. It’s painful to see twenty-year-old or eighteen-year-old people, teenagers, with right-wing speeches.
So, I wanted, with this film, to talk directly to younger generations who are forgetting how difficult it was to come back from the dictatorship and how important it is to defend democracy. It’s something so relevant these days, because we are seeing it everywhere: so many attempts to prevent democracy from happening.
What role did journalists play during the trial?
That’s a very good question. It was something very interesting. Because of course, during the dictatorship the media was controlled by the dictators. So, the journalists, those who knew what was going on, did not talk a lot because they could be killed or disappeared. So, it was difficult how to spread the news. They did it through other countries, mainly, the ones who did it.
The biggest part of society did not know much until we went back to democracy. Then the trial, which lasted six months, was every day in the newspapers, on the news radio, on the TV, so it was like an awakening for a society that did not want to see the awfulness of the dictatorship during its rule. The trial was an awakening for a society to understand how awful what happened in Argentina was. It built what continues this democratic tradition we’re having now since ’83.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve been on a rollercoaster. We showed the film for the first time in August at the Venice Film Festival. I’m doing lots of presentations in many places in the world, which have been so interesting. Now it’s like our last part of this experience with this film — the Oscars. So, I will enjoy this and then after that I will start to think on what to do next and what to start to write again. I’m a writer, so I enjoy my solitude a lot, and I want to go back to it. But also, this is a great experience and I want to enjoy it. It will not last a lot longer.
Good luck at the Oscars.
Thank you very much.