Luis Moreno Ocampo was just 32 years old and had no trial experience when he was summoned to prosecute Argentina's generals in 1985 after the disastrous military dictatorship – a story retold in an Oscar-nominated film.
Moreno Ocampo, who went on to become the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, says Argentina, 1985 can help teach global audiences about the risks of losing democracy – and the importance of public opinion.
"You've got to win your case in court. But then it's a battle for the memory," the 70-year-old said in an interview in Malibu, California, where he currently lives.
"I won the battle... in 1985. But [with this movie], Santiago Mitre and Ricardo Darín are winning the battle for memory in 2023, and that's unique."
Mitre is the director of Argentina, 1985, one of five nominees for the Academy Award for best international feature.
It tells the story of one of the most important trials in the country's history, and puts the focus on the tensions as the nation groped its way back to democracy after seven years of murderous military government from 1976 to 1983.
Moreno Ocampo (played by Peter Lanzani), who himself hailed from a traditional military family, is appointed by lead prosecutor Julio Strassera (Darín) to help try nine of the uniformed men who had ordered thousands of killings and disappearances.
The trial led to the convictions of six men including former dictator Jorge Videla and former Navy chief Emilio Massera, who were jailed for life.
The proceedings, compared to the Nuremberg trials after World War II, also sharply divided Argentines – and even Moreno Ocampo's own family.
"The movie shows how my mother was against me," said Moreno Ocampo, who is now a visiting professor at the University of Southern California and a senior fellow at Harvard. "My mother went to church with the dictator general Videla!"
But as one of the film's most painful scenes reveals, the harrowing first testimony of the trial – that of a woman who is forced by her captors to give birth handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car – changed her mind.
"The next day she called me... She told me: 'I still love General Videla, but you are right, he has to go to jail'."
Argentina, 1985 shows how the military regime set up detention, torture and extermination camps, with people being thrown alive into the sea from airplanes, shot or detained indefinitely. Some 30,000 disappeared, and it is estimated that hundreds of babies born in captivity were given to other families, including military families.
Moreno Ocampo says holding those responsible to account is vital if a country is to come to terms with its past and become a stable and secure democracy – something he says Brazil, for example, did not do.
"They did not investigate the past... this has an impact. In Brazil, they feared that the military could get involved in a coup in the near future," he explained.
"The problem is not the military, because they follow orders. It's the elites – if your elites support a coup, you have a problem," he says.
"It's something that Brazil, and even the United States, hasn't understood," he adds, referring to the 2021 assault on the US Capitol in the waning days of Donald Trump's presidency.
"When journalists ask me how to avoid coups d'état... the issues are not those involved in the sedition, the issue is who was supporting them," he told AFP. "The elite supporting civilian sedition, like in Washington – they are the problem."
'Power of youth'
Argentina has won two Oscars previously, both for films that tackled the years of military terror: La historia oficial ("The Official Story") in 1986 and El secreto de sus ojos ("The Secret in Their Eyes") in 2010.
Moreno Ocampo – who will attend the Oscars on Sunday – says he hopes that this year's offering, with its focus on the role young people played in achieving justice, will bring the four-decade-old story of Argentina's emergence from dictatorship to a new audience.
"My 23-year-old son didn't know what had happened. Now he's learning," he said. "This film is about the risk of [losing] democracy. But it's also about the power of youth – how young people are the ones who change the world and how you have to continue to battle for justice. Justice is a never-ending job."
by Paula Ramón, AFP