A version of this story about “Argentina, 1985” first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In 1985, after years of a brutal military dictatorship, Argentina enlisted prosecutors Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo to make an unprecedented case against the dictatorship’s leaders. Argentine director Santiago Miter used that trial as the basis for his film about a turning point in the country’s history. Ricardo Darín, star of Argentina’s Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes,” stars as Strassera.
The film is Argentina’s entry in this year’s Oscar race for Best International Feature Film.
Santiago, you were too young to remember the trial when it happened, weren’t you?
SANTIAGO MITER Yeah. I don’t remember anything. I was four years old, so I don’t have any direct memories. But my mother has worked for justice for her whole life. So I was raised in the values of justice for building strong democracies. And she had many memories of Strassera and told me many times about his weird, funny personality. So I’ve been fantasizing about doing a film on this subject for a long time.
Ricardo, what do you remember from that time?
RICARDO DARIN Let’s remember when this took place. This is a time when democracy was very new, very recent, very fragile in Argentina. There was an era of skepticism. A lot of people didn’t believe that this could be carried forward. There was a lot of mistrust, a lot of misinformation, a lot of skepticism in the air, because democracy was new and many of the accused still had a lot of power in Argentina.
Why did you want to get involved as a producer as well as an actor?
DARIN Because I am crazy. (laughs) You have to be a bit crazy to get involved in a project like this, I have to say. I have a small production company with my son and another partner, and we are always looking to get involved in projects that are meaningful, that move us. When we learned about “Argentina, 1985,” we immediately knew that this was something that would touch everyone emotionally, beyond the commercial aspect.
How well do people throughout Argentina remember this history?
SANTIAGO MITER It was surprising how little they remember. You can understand that with people that were born with democracy or after ’85 — but it was also blurry for people my age or older. And it was such a significant event. Now we feel that democracy is established, but at that moment, it was not. There was something about the event and the importance it had for the building of the new democracy in Argentina after constant military interventions, so I felt (the movie) was something that needed to be done.
You used the transcripts from the trial, but how much were you able to learn about Strassera outside the courtroom?
MITER That was the most important part of my research. The facts were easy to get, but I wanted to make a really humanistic approach to the characters. My first sources were journalists who worked or wrote things about the trial, but then I went directly to talk to the people that were still alive. Strassera’s son told me a lot of great things, cinematic things. He was in the office and he watched his father write the final indictment. So all these private and small things were very useful for me to build this humanistic, epic trial film.
The beginning of the film says “inspired by a true story.” How accurate is it?
MITER I think it’s very accurate. It’s the point of view of the prosecutors, and we are telling the story through their eyes. And in the public parts of the trial, the speeches of the witnesses and the final indictment are the exact same words, edited of course. It’s super precise, and we had the fortune of being able to shoot in the same courtroom. So when we listen to the testimonies of the witnesses who survived this horror, it was important for me to use some of the original footage of the trial. We designed a system with my DP where we used the same camera that was used in the trial, so we could go from our recreation of the trial into the actual footage.
Ricardo, what was it like to shoot the courtroom scenes, and particularly the testimony of the victims, in the same room where the actual trial had taken place?
DARIN Every time we shot the scenes with different witnesses—and we shot them many, many times—we always felt the same oppression in the chest from having to hear what had happened in their own words. It was always very emotional and strong and heart-wrenching. I remember during the scene of the final indictment, there were about 300 extras in the room. And every single time I delivered the words, I could see that the people in the room had teary eyes. That’s when you realize the strength and the power in the words.
The end of the film walks a very fine line. Some of the leaders were convicted, and as an audience we need to feel some sense of success. And yet not everybody was convicted, and some of the ones who did were later pardoned. Santiago, how tricky was it to find the right balance?
MITER I think you’re getting to a very good point here. It was very tricky because a happy ending was not possible for this film. I mean, this trial went well, and it’s something that you can feel proud of, but it was not enough. What is justice for? What is memory for? Why is it so important that societies bring justice, or at least try to bring justice for the future generation?
It was important that Strassera realizes he needs to keep on fighting for democracy, for justice, because the future society will need it. Our happy ending is that justice is starting to be done. And luckily now, in 2022, we are still doing it because the trials continue to happen.
Read more from the International Film Issue here.