Anyone who has been following the gripping coverage of the U.S. House Select Committee hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack will feel a sense of déjà vu watching Argentina, 1985. The new film from director Santiago Mitre (Paulina, The Summit), which premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3, is also about political violence and the attempt to impose democracy through the rule of law.
The film is inspired by the true story of Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo, the public prosecutors who, together with a young and untested legal team, put Argentina’s military on trial. In 1985, they dared to prosecute the architects of Argentina’s bloody “dirty war,” when, under the country’s military dictatorship, right-wing death squads hunted down political dissidents and anyone believed to be associated with socialism or left-wing politics. Thousands of people were killed or disappeared.
Argentina, 1985 goes out in select theaters on Sept. 30 and bows on Amazon Prime Video worldwide on Oct. 21.
Mitre discussed the film and the challenges it posed with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Europe bureau chief Scott Roxborough.
What memories do you have of the 1985 trial? You were just a kid at the time.
Yeah, I was a little boy when the trial took place, but I still have some memories of it. I still remember my parents talking about the trial and how happy they were, particularly how they talked about Julio Strassera’s speech [in closing arguments]. I was very young, but this trial was something for me and for my family.
What role did it play for your family?
It was something I heard [my parents] talking about it. My mother has worked as a family sociologist, assisting judges in cases since she was 17 years old. My father is a lawyer and so was my grandfather. So justice is very important to my family. And this trial was extremely important for people who cared about justice. [Argentina] had just emerged from this huge dictatorship, that was the context of this trail. So it wasn’t just my own family, but most of the people in Argentina were extremely proud when this happened.
What do you think is significant about this moment in your country’s history that is particularly resonant for today?
That’s a difficult question. It’s something we will find out when the film screens for audiences in Argentina and in the rest of the world. The subjects of justice and dealing with authoritarianism are themes that societies always need to care about. What I really wanted was to do a film about justice, and about this specific trial, but to take a very human approach. It was super important to me to portray these people, who were heroes of justice, as they were, which is just normal people trying to do their jobs. Because when you talk about transforming the world, about achieving justice, it can seem impossible, that only superheroes can manage it. But this trial shows ordinary people can still do important and historic things, like the people in this trial did.
At one point in the film, Julio Strassera, played by Ricardo Darín, says “people like me don’t make history.”
What was also very important to me, in developing this story, was to show how Strassera’s family worked. Families are extremely important in the film because the family is really the first political unit you belong to. That’s the case for Strassera and, in the opposite way, for Luis Moreno Ocampo. I’ve looked at politics and different aspects of life in my previous films, and family has always been at the center of things. These families are the political circles surrounding our characters.
Strassera and Ocampo come from families at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Watching the movie, I had to think of the January 6 committee in the U.S. and how polarized politics are at the moment. What happened in Argentina with the dictatorship and its aftermath was a bit like the family of the nation splitting. Is what you are showing in your film also a depiction of how a divided nation can find a way to come together again?
I think it is a lesson. For Argentina, nowadays, but it’s also a lesson for the world. It’s called Argentina, 1985, but we are trying to use it to talk to Argentina, 2022. It’s something we need to remember: how we heal divides and put things back together again. To go back to the family thing, in Argentina the main symbol of the fight against the dictatorship was the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared. So family, the thing that connects all of us, we all have a mother, is very rooted in how, at least in Argentina, we understand how we get out of dictatorships. It may seem like a weird connection to make, but I think this link, between families and justice, is something I really wanted to show with this film.
You close the film with Strassera’s triumphant speech, but then note that most of the men on trial were later pardoned by the government, which to many doesn’t look much like justice.
That ending was super important for me. I didn’t want to close the film with the message that they succeeded. Because you never totally succeed. Not in this kind of fight. The characters, the real people, they kept on working, they kept on fighting. And in society, we have to keep on fighting, keep on pushing for the truth to be revealed, for the people who are guilty to be condemned. It’s still happening, it isn’t something that ever stops.
As a writer, and director, it would have been very difficult for me to say: they won and everyone was happy. Because it was not like that. This was the first step in a fight of many years to achieve justice and build a civil society.
How is the trial viewed now in Argentina? Is it still a point of contention?
I think a lot of people have forgotten about it. Of course, there are older people, and those who care about justice and about politics, who remember. But there’s also a right-wing movement growing up that wants to blur things about history. So I think this is an important film that can remind everyone about this amazing achievement, that justice was achieved in Argentina. And also to remind the younger generation, those born after the trial, that these things happened. We have to keep on fighting to make sure the victims of the dictatorship are not forgotten.
On a practical level, how difficult was it to create the Argentina of 1985 for the film?
In my mind, the 1980s are still very close to the present day. I have very fresh memories of the 1980s. But when you look at pictures and go to location, you see Buenos Aires has completely changed. So it was very difficult. This is my first period film and if you are looking to do something set in the 1960s or 1920s you know you’re going to have to build a lot. For the 1980s, I wouldn’t have thought we’d need to. But we did, we built most of it, working with an amazing art department and production design crew, because I didn’t want to do most of it in post-production with special effects, as most films do nowadays. We also were very lucky that the building where the trial took place, is still there. It’s a historic monument no longer used for regular trials. Usually, you can’t shoot there, but because of the themes of this film, we got permission.
During the trial, you combine what looks like historic footage, including TV coverage, with your own material.
I wanted to be really precise in the way we portrayed the trial. We are used to watching the original footage from the angles the camera used for the TV broadcast, which showed the witnesses from behind because it was too dangerous to show their faces. The dictatorship was so recent, that many people were hunting down those who dared to testify. I wanted to show that, but because time has passed, also to recreate the intensity of the trial by showing the reverse shots, showing people’s faces when they recount for the first time the atrocities they lived through in the dictatorship’s concentration camps.
So for some of the footage, we shot from the same angles as the original broadcast, using the same pneumatic cameras and the same lenses they used in 1985. In doing that, we created our own fake archive of footage with our actors. We mixed that fake footage with footage from the original trail and then the scenes we shot in digital on the Alexa [camera]. It was an interesting patchwork when sometimes you realize it’s a recreation, and sometimes you don’t.
Can I ask about casting the film? Obviously, you’ve worked with Ricardo Darín before [in 2017’s The Summit] but how did you pick your other actors?
Well, Ricardo is an icon here in Argentina and I think he was the only one who would have the strength to bring the character of Julio Strassera to life. He’s been a very good friend for several years now, so when I was starting to develop the film, he was the first person I spoke to and it was clear from the start he would play Strassera. He worked with me on the film for a long time, eventually becoming a producer on the movie as well. So it was a very strong collaboration, much more than was the case on [The Summit]. I’m very much in love with the way Ricardo works and all that he’s done for the film.
Peter Lanzani, who plays Luis Moreno Ocampo, is a young actor I admire a lot and he just happens to really resemble Luis, so it was a pretty obvious choice.
For the rest of the cast, I worked, as I always do on my films, with my sister, Mariana, who is the casting director. She said: if you are doing a historical film and you have two famous, well-known actors, with Ricardo and Peter, you don’t want many other famous faces in the film, because it will distract people from the time travel aspect of the movie. You want people to believe these are the real people. So we tried to find people who weren’t that well known, to make the rest of the cast seem believable and very real to the audience. So people can think: this really happened.
This film is Amazon’s first-ever Argentinian original. How is it going to go out after its Venice premiere?
It’s going to have a theatrical release for four weeks in Argentina and a few other territories in South America and be in cinemas first in the U.S. and U.K. and a few other places before going out on Amazon. This is a film we made for cinemas with Amazon. We were so lucky they see things the same way we do and are helping us get the best theatrical distribution we can for the film in the countries where we think it will bring audiences into the cinemas.
Is that important for you, to have a theatrical release?
Yes, it’s important. I don’t know if I’d call myself a cinephile. But I like the cinema. I like the theater, the shared experience of watching a film together in the dark with strangers. I always imagine my films being shown that way. It was something we spoke with together with the producers from the beginning. It was something we needed to do, and I’m very happy it’s happening this way.
What is the historic significance of this trial for your country and the history of democracy in Argentina?
Since the 1930s, Argentina alternated between military governments and civilian governments. No civilian government could ever finish its term in office because there was always a military coup d’etat. There was this constant threat against democracy. The 1985 trial ended that cycle. We have had a democracy ever since. The trial was the foundation of a new country. I’m not sure that’s how people remember it now, but that’s how I see it.
It’s inspiring that this sort of democratic revolution didn’t come about through violence but through a process of justice.
Yes, through justice brought about by young people. That’s something I really love about the story, that because no one in the justice department wants to work on the trial, Strassera needs to seek help from young people. It’s an important message of believing in the power of youth to transform things.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Check out the trailer for Argentina, 1985 below.