Hot Docs

El Equipo Review: Rock Stars of a Revolution

Hot Docs 2023

/
5 mins read

El Equipo (The Team)

(USA, 80 min.)
Dir. Bernardo Ruiz
Programme: Special Presentations

 

A film of a small group of people who changed history for the better, the documentary El Equipo (The Team) begins around the same historical period as last year’s Oscar-nominated courtroom drama, Argentina 1985. The country began its national reckoning with a trial of members of the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 in a reign of terror that included kidnappings, torture, and the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 people.

One of the witnesses at that trial was a gravel-voiced, chain-smoking Texan, Clyde Snow, a forensic expert who had specialized in homicide cases, including that of mass murderer, John Wayne Gacey. At the trial, Snow presented the dramatic case of just one victim, a pregnant 21-year-old bank clerk,  Liliana Pereyra, who died by a gun shot to the head. Her pelvic bones, Snow said, revealed that she had been abducted and kept alive until she gave birth, and her child was either sold or given away.

Snow describes how he came to Argentina in 1984 at the request of the newly elected democratic government of President Raúl Alfonsin with an assignment to organize a team to exhume the remains of the regime’s victims. The job was  supposed to take a few weeks, enough time  for him to assemble a forensics team to begin the process of exhuming and identifying bodies. Unable to find people with expertise who weren’t either afraid or connected to the previous government, Snow ended up hiring a group of university students he trained to do the work.

Three members of the team, Mercedes “Mimi” Doretti, Patricia Bernardi and Luis Fondebrieder,  continue the story, narrating over a trove of archival clips. They followed Snow’s footsteps and became part of an organization known as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology (EAFF). In the first months, death threats were so common the team began responding to calls with a joke: “Sorry, we don’t take death threats until after 4 p.m.”

Snow, who died in 2014 at the age of 86, says in an archival interview that his students soon surpassed him and “touched off a revolution.” At the invitation of human rights groups in other countries where mass killings had taken place, the team exported their technical expertise along with their commitment to justice. To date, the EAFF has worked in more than 60 countries. In 2020, EAFF earned a Nobel Peace prize nomination.

Through the four-decade period covered by the film, we see these forensic researchers grow from fresh-faced youths to creased and greying middle-aged men and women. What sustains them, they say, are their bonds and commitment with the families who have lost loved ones to violence. Repeated scenes of the team sorting through piles of dry bones or exploring patchy fields for graves have a clinical matter-of-factness. The shock comes when we see them uncovering  a dress, small shoes, and a child’s toy horse, during their investigations of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, where  soldiers murdered almost 1,000 people.

At times, the team’s workers risk offending those who are still in power. When the EAFF  investigated the  unsolved abduction of 2014 of 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s college, the Mexican government, which condemned the report, illegally spied on one of the investigators.

A Guatemalan man, Fredy Peccerelli, recalls how, in his youth, he viewed Clive Snow as a moral mentor and the Argentinian team as “rock stars.” He has since formed a spin-off organization in his own country. Snow once apologized to him and Mimi Moretti for getting them “involved in this mess” and told they were welcome to quit: “But I never could,” says Peccerelli, “and he never did, so the work continues.”

 

El Equipo screens at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Following its festival run, El Equipo will premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens in the USA this fall.

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for Original-Cin.ca and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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