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A historic event in Argentina is now a courtroom drama that's up for an Oscar

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One of Argentina's defining historic events is now a gripping courtroom drama that's up for an Oscar this year. The film looks back on how a civilian court in the 1980s put the country's former military dictators on trial, something that the world had never seen before. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: As the trailer for "Argentina, 1985" points out, no other country in the world had ever tried its own former genocidal leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGENTINA, 1985")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And what's also remarkable, says Argentine director Santiago Mitre - the trial took place less than two years after the toppling of the military dictatorship.

SANTIAGO MITRE: It was a very brave decision and a risky one but also very important for building a better democracy at that time.

KAHN: Not to mention, Mitre tells me from Los Angeles, the courtroom drama with its underdogs fight-the-power plot was ripe for a movie script, especially, he adds, now as democracies worldwide are under threat.

MITRE: So to bring a story about justice that really happened and that accountability was something important to bring to these days.

KAHN: Mitre was a young kid in 1985, but veteran Argentine actor Ricardo Darin was in his 30s. He plays the reluctant hero prosecutor in the film and remembers the trial well. But he tells me from his home in Buenos Aires he was hesitant to take the part. He doesn't like portraying real people.

RICARDO DARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But in this case, he says he felt that the objective outweighed all.

DARIN: (Through interpreter) What we did was show that there is a point when regular citizens can band together with a common objective and come out ahead.

KAHN: And he says the lead prosecutor, Julio Cesar Strassera, was such a great, complex character - quirky, a prankster yet in the end heroic, like the rest of the young prosecutors that joined his team.

DARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They all had so much courage, such bravery," he says. "Every day, they were threatened and intimidated." Some critics have complained the film glossed over such details or gave short shrift to the horrors related in the courtroom.

EMILIO FISZMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Oh, no. It reflected what it was like," says Emilio Fiszman. Now 79, the lifelong human rights advocate was at the real trial. His younger sister was one of the tens of thousands disappeared during the dictatorship. Fiszman also played an extra in the movie trial, which was shot in the same courtroom where it took place nearly four decades ago.

FISZMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Many people ask me, is this real? Did this really happen like this? And it was," he says, "verbatim." Especially the closing argument, taken straight from archival videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIO CESAR STRASSERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Actor Ricardo Darin says unlike the real-life Strassera, he choked up as he read the powerful ending, which he repeated for me in our interview and is heard here in the English version of the film.

DARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGENTINA, 1985")

RICARDO DARIN: (As Julio Cesar Strassera) I want to use a phrase that does not belong to me because it belongs to all the people of Argentina.

DARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGENTINA, 1985")

DARIN: (As Julio Cesar Strassera) Never again.

DARIN: Darin says regardless of what happens at the Oscars, he's proud of the film and Argentina's uninterrupted democracy of the last 40 years.

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KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.