“Genocide is the most extreme of all crimes against humanity,” writes Israel Charny, author of The Genocide Contagion. In academic literature and international law this term refers to the killing of a particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These horrific acts contain “severe blows to human rights, extreme displays of human suffering, and severe moral breakdowns of humanity.”
Argentina is four times the size of Texas and is the second largest country in South America. During the mid and late 1970s the country’s right-wing military regime conducted an indiscriminate anti-subversion campaign against its own citizens. Thousands of suspected enemies of the state were taken to clandestine prisons where they were tortured and then murdered. The military’s “dirty war” split families asunder, and relatives of those who “disappeared” were left in the dark as to whether their loved ones were alive or dead.
Argentina, 1985 recalls those events. As we watched it and reflected on it later, we thought of other resources that have helped us grasp the significance of that genocide.
In The Official Story, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1986, screenplay writers Luiz Puenzo and Aida Bortnik tell the painful and wrenching drama of the fate of children taken from their parents and given to childless friends of the military regime in Argentina. What kind of political zealots would use children as secret booty in a war against left-wing terrorists? Why didn’t more Argentinian citizens protest against these human rights violations? We were deeply moved by this drama and wrote: “This wrenching and painful drama crystallizes the horror and the obscenity of political activities that annihilate family solidarity in the name of ideology. It packs a shattering visceral punch.”
In his monumental book Worse Than War, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen outlines the terrible causes and consequences of genocide, “eliminationism” (a form of politics which targets threatening groups or populations and seeks to get rid of them through mass incarceration, expulsion, and murder), and political acts based on seeing enemies as sub-humans. Goldhagen believes that genocide is worse than war and is appalled that more has not been done by the world community to stop its spread. This horrific international scourge has taken place in Tibet, North Korea, former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Rwanda, southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, and elsewhere. The author laments the staggering indifference of political leaders and international agencies to halt eliminationism campaigns. He suggests that the term “crimes against humanity” as a descriptor of genocide be replaced by the phrase “war against humanity.”
Other films and books have described the impact of genocide, and they are never easy to contemplate. A moving image that comes to us at such times is from John Sayles’s movie The Brother from Another Planet. The alien visitor removes his eyeball and hands it to a drug dealer who is oblivious to the chaos of the streets and all the suffering going on there. The eyeball is filled with examples of death and destruction the visitor has observed. In a vivid and convincing way, this scene demonstrates the ideal of giving someone your eyes so they can see and feel what you have seen and felt. Films like Argentina, 1985 contribute to that process.
On March 24, 1976, a reactionary military junta assumed power in Argentina and initiated a state sponsored reign of terror. Anyone with left-wing ideals was assumed to be a threat to the military regime. Some 30,000 people were considered subversives. Students, trade unionists, journalists, artists, militants, and socialists were imprisoned, tortured, murdered or disappeared.
Thousands were killed in mass shootings, women were raped, and their children sold. Many were taken on flights where they were pushed to their deaths out of air planes in the South Atlantic where they would never to be found.
Argentina, 1985 examines the Trial of the Juntas, a civilian court set out to try former military leaders for the crimes committed during this period. Director Santiago Mitre mixes the material using archival footage, original television coverage, and emotionally rich testimonies of those whose lives were torn to shreds by the brutality of those on trial.
The chief prosecutor is Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darin), a courageous and conscience driven lawyer who must endure pressures from his superiors and anxiety when his wife and two children are threatened with death. He also needs large doses of patience when he learns from his assistant (Peter Lanzani) that the only people willing to do the necessary research and take testimonies to build the case are young law students. But they turn into gifted zealots exposing human rights violations and seeking justice.