A Painful Privilege

On Ulises de la Orden’s The Trial

Lucía Salas

El Juicio (The Trial)


Enrique Raab was an Argentinian writer born in Vienna, exiled with his family during the Nazi era. A Worker’s Revolutionary Party (PRT) member, Raab was taken from his apartment on 16 April 1977, never to be seen again. In a profile of Raab, María Moreno quotes Sartre: “’Would have’ is a verb that does not exist”. ‘Would have’ is a formulation that lacks a presence in the real; it designates that which is condemned to be only imaginary. One present of Argentina, in which people such as Raab were to be part of a future, belongs only to this formulation. But we must live with what we have, and this is the premise of Ulises de la Orden’s El Juicio, a film that concentrates on the Juicio a las juntas, a piece of history that belongs to Argentina and the world, and the only time in which those responsible for genocide were tried in their territory and condemned. The trial took place between 22 April and 9 December 1985, over 90 long court days – 530 hours – all recorded for Public Television. There were 833 witnesses.

Given the trial was shot to be televised, characters begin to form by montage. We see the district attorney, Julio César Strassera, and his collaborator, Luis Gabriel Moreno Ocampo. We see the five judges and we sometimes see the faces of the repressors, defended each by their separate lawyers, each with a style to approach horror. We also see survivors, family members of people who disappeared or were found dead, and collaborators of the dictatorship. Of the people who testify, we see only their backs, or a quick profile when they move. We barely catch a fraction of a face. It is the judges who we see the most, and their reactions to the testimonies that we encounter repeatedly.

Chapter by chapter, as we listen to the witnesses give evidence, we see the new, restored State (district attorney and judges) reacting. We see their tired, almost disfigured features understanding history through tales of horror. This may well be a film about the faces of the responsible (the criminals and the law), about what time and information does to some of them. On the other side, in the defence, we see control of the gestures and grave discourses made by the defending attorneys. Every time the trial day is starting or finishing, we see the criminals smile at one another, greet someone who has come to say hello, to shake a hand. There is no surprise, no horror in their faces. At most, there is nothing.

To the defence’s famous discourse (“this was a war and we won it”), the film responds with the rhetoric of montage. Several times throughout the film, when the topics become unbearable, jump cuts appear as an accumulation of experiences and an accumulation of evidence in small amounts of time. These fragments go fast, and so do the people who tell them. It is perhaps a rhetoric of respect, to deliver but not to linger. Time, on the other hand, is constructed as a continuum: watching images of a large room for almost three hours, we hardly ever know what time it is, or what day. Sometimes the defence lawyers complain about the hour. It seems to be two or three in the morning. The faces are tired but attentive. This is a long day of justice, as opposed to the long years of terror.

But the most prominent element of the film is speech and how it is shaped. We see throughout the days how every witness has developed a way of referring to what has happened to them, a way of articulating it as the crime that it was. Today, in Argentina, historical memory is guaranteed by the State (and we hope it will continue to be), and the rhetoric of the defeated, the murdered, and the disappeared are more present to us than that one of the murderers. But in 1985, this was not the case, and in this trial, a piece of history but also of literature was born. Strassera’s final words in the trial are: “we have the responsibility to build a peace based not on forgetfulness but on memory; not on violence but on justice”. This is, he says, “a painful privilege”. De la Orden’s film is another. Based on the idea that ‘would have’ is a verb that doesn’t exist, the film concentrates on a past revised for a better future.

Lucía Salas is an Argentinian writer, programmer, and filmmaker based in Spain. Her work navigates cinema, past and present. She is a co-editor of the film magazine La vida útil, a programmer at Punto de Vista and Woche der Kritik, and a teacher in the curatorial studies program at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of El Juicio (The Trial) at Bertha DocHouse, 10 September 2023.