In November, Argentina elected far-right candidate Javier Milei as president. During his campaign, Milei – who would often brandish a chainsaw when talking about his plans for the state, and when telling citizens to “be careful not to become a communist” – downplayed the number “disappeared” and killed by the notorious military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, insisting that there were not 30,000 victims, as has widely been stated over the last 40 years, but 8,753. Two months earlier, his vice-president, the arch-conservative Victoria Villaruel, held a vigil for “victims of leftist terror” in the years before the junta seized power, which had to be heavily policed amidst large counter-protests.
Though perhaps par for the course for Milei, whose antics had earned him the nickname El Loco (the crazy one), to many this was the final straw. The proud claim that the trial of the junta paved the way for Argentina not just to become but to remain a democracy, surviving even the economic collapse of 2001, has never looked in such peril.
On 18 June 1982, General Leopoldo Galtieri – the third dictator of Argentina’s military junta since the coup d’état of 1976 – received a letter from the army high command demanding his resignation. Amidst the loss of the Falklands war, plummeting real wages and a decline in GDP, Galtieri knew the jig was up: the National Reorganisation Process, as the junta called itself, had run its course. He stood down, soon followed by his entire cabinet.
Galtieri’s successor, General Reynaldo Bignone, restored to Argentinians limited rights to assembly and free speech, and announced that an election would be held in March 1984. During this two-year interregnum, the military regime destroyed evidence relating to the disappearance of 15-30,000 dissidents, but the cover-up wouldn’t last long. In February 1983, Buenos Aires police chief Ramón Camps announced that the “disappeared” – mostly trade union personnel, academics and students, as well as people involved in leftwing parties and guerrilla organisations – had been killed, forcing Bignone to acknowledge the slaughter and announce an amnesty for its perpetrators, himself included.
Following widespread protests, the election was brought forward to December 1983. The liberal Radical Civic Union (UCR) party won. It established a democratic National Congress, overturned Bignone’s amnesty and in 1985 organised the juicio a las juntas (trial of the juntas): the first and still the only time that those responsible for establishing such a murderous regime were put on trial and condemned in their own country.
Over 90 days, 833 witnesses testified against nine former military officers, including the coup’s leader and first president Jorge Videla, his successor Roberto Viola and Galtieri. They spoke of mass killings, rape, torture, the kidnapping of adults and babies. The generals insisted that their “dirty war” was a justified response to “leftist terror”. Argentina’s national commission on the disappearance of persons produced a 50,000-page report that became known as Nunca Más (Never Again), which, along with the testimonies, formed the basis of the prosecution’s case.
Incredibly, the trial was recorded in its entirety, but only very short clips of it were broadcast during news programmes in 1985, without sound, with the trial being contentious in itself, and the events discussed in the courtroom still so raw and sensitive.
Since then, the U-matic tapes have sat in a Spanish archive, never to be seen again – that is, until Ulises de la Orden accessed them, and edited 530 hours of footage down to 177 minutes to make one of the most compelling political documentaries of the 21st century.
El Juicio (The Trial), de la Orden’s tenth film, boils down the drama to its essence: district attorney Julio César Strassera, the survivors, the generals and their lawyers, and five judges. Besides separating the film into acts, the title of each drawn verbatim from courtroom dialogue, Orden adds no commentary or indeed any other sound to the footage, which may look dated, having clearly been shot on videotape, but still feels raw and urgent.
In the context of Milei’s historical revisionism, The Trial serves as a timely reminder of just how horrific the junta (and, by extension, US-backed regimes across South America) actually was, and how the dehumanisation of the left paved the way for it.
The defendants start – much like Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu in Romania four years later – by questioning the court’s legitimacy and objectivity, right down to the seating arrangements. They argue it is unconstitutional to “judicialize a political matter”, and that the judge and jury are not qualified to replace the supreme council of the armed forces. They dispute the term “war criminals”, presenting themselves as victims of a show trial or, as they put it, “another Nuremberg, but in reverse” and a “Marxist-Leninist … inquisition”.
The court adjourns, then hears from Ítalo Lúder, who deputised for Isabel Perón as head of state immediately before the coup. Lúder issued executive orders allowing the army free rein in attacking leftist “subversion” – especially the People’s Revolutionary Army, founded to fight the military regime of 1966-73. When the defence suggests that the junta was simply carrying out Lúder’s orders, he insists this did not mean to “physically annihilate them or violate the legal structure”. Was the military regime, then, a continuation of the existing order, or an aberration? Is the trial aiming to set boundaries around what is considered excessive force, and what is seen as simply necessary to protect the established order? If it is, then who is implicated, how, and why?
With the new democratic government hoping to distance itself from both Isabel Perón’s rule and the juntas, the ramifications of these questions are partially explored in a discussion of “the subversion of the State”. The prosecution says the radicals killed either before or after the coup were entitled to a legal process, in response to the generals’ only real argument, that their actions were justified in quelling left-wing insurgency – and an important part of the US-backed dirty war, Operation Condor, across South America.
After establishing the necessity of defending “the Argentine people” and “the Republic”, one of the defendants says they are on trial “because we won the armed war but lost the psychological war”, asking: “Which side were my accusers on? Were they hoping the repressors would win?”
Democratic institutions are cast as the enemy, captured by the extreme left: the need to defeat it by whatever means necessary is questioned less than whether the “disappeared” fell into that category, but this becomes less relevant as the witnesses recount the regime’s methods in horrifying detail. This isn’t really about the “banality of evil” so famously discussed by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: it is not the whole society, through an emblematic figure, on trial for establishing and sustaining a barbaric society, but a small number of people for extraordinary abuses of power.
We hardly see the witnesses – the television cameras shot them from behind, perhaps to avoid reprisal – but we do see plenty of the defence looking blank or aggrieved, smiling at each other or shaking hands with people making their way to the galleries. This may sound like it could foster identification with the accused. With the sheer number of witnesses, the abuses they recall and shots of weeping mothers, this feeling quickly evaporates.
We hear about students being massacred for demanding bus passes; about Nazis who fled to Argentina after 1945, influencing the regime’s tactics and bolstering its virulent antisemitism; about how the junta used the 1978 World Cup, awarded by FIFA to Argentina before the coup, as a propaganda tool while running concentration camps within earshot of the Buenos Aires stadium where Argentina won the final. We hear from Robert Cox, the English editor of the Buenos Aires Herald who initially thought that “through dictatorship, we might get to democracy”, but soon had the junta calling his office to suppress discussion of the disappearances, insisting that anyone arrested was “a terrorist”. We hear about menacing calls being made to the prosecution lawyers’ offices and see the court adjourn when tensions spill over into personal animosity.
The film builds to a crescendo with district attorney Strassera’s closing speech. Referring to the seventh circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy in which “tyrants lament their pitiless mischiefs” and asserting the need to restore the juridical principles established in Argentina’s constitution, Strassera insists: “We have a responsibility to build a peace based not on forgetfulness but on memory; not on violence but on justice.” The phrase “Nunca Más” belongs to the Argentina people, he says, closing to rapturous applause and tears from the gallery.
The sentences are presented in an epilogue before we see them being pronounced by the judge. Videla and Emilio Massera, seen as the mastermind of the dirty war, were given life imprisonment. The coup’s other leader, Orlando Ramón Agosti, got four years and six months. Viola received 17 years, with other leaders of the second junta getting less than 10. Galtieri and the heads of the third junta, Jorge Anaya and Basilio Lami Dozo, who voluntarily stood down, were acquitted. In 2005, the left-leaning president Néstor Kirchner overturned the impunity laws passed by Carlos Menem’s government in the late 1980s, and more than 1,000 people eventually went to prison for their role in the regime, with a further 1,000 dying while on trial.
At a screening in London last year, I asked de la Orden about the balance of prosecution evidence and defence testimony in his edit, and if he considered including more of the latter. Their arguments, he said, barely went beyond undermining the legitimacy of the trial and repeating that “we had to crush the left”. In the absence of documentary evidence, the trial focused on the witnesses, making sure they formed the historical record. De la Orden grants them similar dignity, reminding us of that record and making it accessible to new audiences, reinforces Strassera’s conclusion, without passing explicit judgement on the process.
That the junta’s actions were atrocities will be self-evident to almost anyone who watches The Trial. But what happens if a consensus cannot hold? What if a consensus is based on memories that last only a generation or two?
Such memory lapse poses a substantial threat to countries that consider themselves bastions of democracy, having supposedly reckoned with their fascist past – countries like Argentina or Germany, where the ascendant AfD has long been calling for the country to rewrite its Nazi history. Meanwhile, the endless turmoil in Italy, from Operation Gladio and the Years of Lead to Berlusconi’s debasing combination of media, spectacle and politics, and subsequent electoral drift ever rightwards to the Lega Nord and Brothers of Italy, shows what can happen when there isn’t a serious reckoning with history.
The work of sustaining democracy isn’t just keeping alive the memory of dictatorship, an increasingly ineffective bastion against far-right seeking to harness liberal democracy in order to destroy it. For that history not to be repeated, we need societies where in which movements against inequality and poverty are not suppressed.
If they are, as the likes of Milei and Villaruel – who have convinced a worrying number of people that the atrocities of the past were exaggerated – will be able to organise unchecked, with a long-term view to reviving their predecessors’ projects and making their countries less democratic. By bringing the testimonies of those censored or tortured, of those whose loved ones “disappeared” back to the surface, in a film that vividly conveys the full horrors of the dirty war, de la Orden resists this revisionism and, one hopes, does a little to ensure such atrocities never happen again.