Standing beneath the birch and flowering jacaranda trees at what used to be ESMA (the acronym in Spanish for the Navy School of Mechanics) it's not easy to picture the horrors that took place at this sprawling urban campus in Buenos Aires.

In the 1970s and '80s, ESMA was a clandestine detention center for a right-wing military regime brutally engaged in eliminating dissent through criminal practices that were exposed in gruesome detail in trial testimony two years after the end of the Argentine dictatorship.

In 1985, after briefly granting themselves amnesty, the leaders of the military regime were convicted by the new civilian government of crimes against humanity. The charges: kidnapping, torturing and murdering tens of thousands of their own citizens during a reign of terror that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Forty years after the fall of that dictatorship, a video record of its trial – the only example of a Latin American democracy convicting its own oppressors — is being shown to the public for the first time at the Berlin International Film Festival.

More document than documentary, Ulises de la Orden's three-hour compendium, El Juicio (The Trial), is composed entirely of video shot during those courtroom proceedings. Using two stationary, state-of-the-art, U-matic video cameras, Argentina's public television captured some 530 hours of testimony between April and December 1985.

Videotapes secretly stashed half a world away

After the trial, because the military was still much feared, the six trial judges secretly stashed a copy of the recordings half a world away in Oslo, where the tapes sat in Norwegian government vaults for more than two decades before being re-discovered. They have never been publicly broadcast — not even during the trial.

"News programs were allowed to show three minutes of courtroom images daily, but without sound," remembers Veronica Torras, executive director of the human rights consortium now entrusted with the videos. Her organization Memoria Abierta (Open Memory), along with the University of Salamanca, have been tasked with preserving, digitizing and making the trial videos available to the public.

The two-part, 18-chapter documentary El Juicio, is a step in that process, one that coincides — perhaps inevitably in the year marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the dictatorship — with an Oscar-nominated dramatic recreation of the trial: Argentina, 1985, starring Ricardo Darin as prosecutor Julio César Strassera.

Torras acknowledges the usefulness of the additional attention that the recreation will draw to the documentary, as she sits for an interview in Memoria Abierta's headquarters on the campus of the former ESMA.

State terrorism across from shops and apartments

"What is now a museum of memory," she says, gesturing to her surroundings, "was then a site of state terrorism where civilians were held without charges, tortured, then flown far out over the Atlantic to be thrown alive from what were known as 'death flights.' "

It's disconcerting to realize how close victims at ESMA were to the society from which they'd been snatched. Just across a busy highway are shops and apartment buildings — an unnerving contrast to the sorts of atrocities witnesses detail in the film. Teenagers swept up on what was known as the "Night of the Pencils," for serving on high school student councils — 15-year-olds, brutalized, raped and murdered, remembers a lone survivor. A face-obscuring, over-the-shoulder camera angle required by the court means that you know he's sobbing during his testimony only from the shaking of his torso.

Another witness speaks of expectant mothers imprisoned until they gave birth, then executed, their newborn babies handed off to military families.

Because their captivity was never acknowledged by the regime, the victims were known as "the disappeared." And as the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald told the judges, "as soon as somebody disappeared, everybody said he/she must be a terrorist."

'Instead of stopping the killing, they tried to stop people reporting the killing'

"I had continual meetings with the minister of the interior," the editor continues. "He always complained that publications in the newspaper were counterproductive, suggesting that if I did publish these reports, the people who had been kidnapped might never appear again. So instead of stopping the killing, they tried to stop people reporting the killing."

While the trial videos have been seen only in bits and pieces by the Argentine public, the film's damning testimony is a matter of public record. Newspapers offered transcripts of the trial in 1985 — not as visceral, perhaps, as hearing the voices of victims. But Torras recalls reading the newspapers as a child and realizing that her grandmother was just then learning what had happened during the dictatorship, thanks to the coverage of the trial.

Asked how, with tens of thousands of people having been "disappeared," it was possible for people not to know what was happening, Torras pauses for several seconds before talking about the difference between the experience of city dwellers who saw the military pulling people off the streets, and those like her grandmother who lived in rural areas and in the south where the repression was more hidden.

Nunca mas — never again

That duality of experience is, in a sense, the issue that Torras hopes releasing the tapes will rectify. Forty years later, the regime's savagery is becoming a distant memory, especially for a generation that wasn't alive at the time. A generation that can, in the trial tapes, hear the prosecutor conclude his summation with the words "nunca mas" (never again), and watch the crowd's explosive reaction wipe the smiles from the faces of the former dictator and his generals.

Memoria Abierta's mission is to keep that memory potent through broad access to the trial videos. The group will soon be making the digitized trial footage available on demand. The Berlin Film Festival's premiere of El Juicio is a first step.

Edited by Rose Friedman
Audio production by Isabella Gomez
Digital story produced by Beth Novey
Spanish language version edited by Luis Trelles
RAD services provided by Nicolette Khan

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