Hot Docs 2023: The Team (El Equipo)

Directed by: Bernardo Ruiz
Distributed by: TBA

Written by Maria Athayde


“El Equipo” or “The Team” is a fascinating documentary about the evolution of forensic anthropology, told through the eyes of renowned American forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow and a team of Argentine students during a period of military authoritarianism in Argentina. The documentary begins in 1984 when Dr. Snow receives a call asking if he could go to Buenos Aires to help exhume the remains of “los desaparecidos” or “the disappeared,” who were kidnapped, murdered, and tortured under the military government. During this trip, Dr. Snow befriends a group of Argentine college students, including Mercedes “Mimi” Doretti, Patricia Bernardi, and Luis Fondebrider, who became essential elements in the human rights, exhumation of graves, and identification process of the disappeared.

Mostly relying on archival footage, photographs, and later on, first-person point-of-view images recorded by Doretti, the initial part of the documentary focuses on the challenges in Argentina and the personal commitment the team had made to the families of the victims who had been denied information about their loved ones. This felt close to home for Mimi, Patricia, and Luis, who wanted families to participate and have an active voice in the exhumation process. Much of their work was done before DNA testing, so there were many limitations to the identification process, and the team had to rely on dental records and old fractures for identification. This part of the documentary was particularly poignant as Mimi, Patricia, and Luis explained that they could not let emotions influence their findings or they would lose their credibility. At the same time, they could not think of these bones as only objects, or they would lose sight that these were real people, with real lives, and that their stories deserved to be told.

In 1985, during the Junta Trials, Dr. Snow had an opportunity to testify about his team’s findings and, for the first time, lay out the evidence for the public eye. Out of this experience, Mimi, Patricia, and Luis became a professional team, and after years of mostly operating on a voluntary basis, they decided to formalize, consolidate, and obtain legal standing for the work they had been doing for three years prior by forming an NPO called EAAF (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team). Their work in Argentina marked the start of a revolution, and Dr. Snow and his team began taking on international missions. At this point, Dr. Snow, Mimi, Patricia, and Luis were more like peers, and in the coming years, they relied on each other to conduct a variety of exhumations across the globe. The documentary shows the impact this type of work had in similar missions in Chile, Guatemala, Kurdistan, El Salvador, Haiti, Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Mexico. The way Ruiz was able to intersperse fragments of all these different narratives along a common throughline in the search for truth, justice, and memory was extraordinary.

The most effective choice, however, was Ruiz’s decision to rely primarily on archival footage and voiceovers until the one-hour mark when we get to see Mimi, Patricia, and Luis’s faces for the first time. After seeing their work in action, getting to put a face and voice together was a rewarding payoff. If you want to learn more about military authoritarianism in South American history, this doc is a good starting point and makes a great companion to narrative features like “Azor,” “Argentina, 1985,” “Tony Manero,” and “Chile ’76.” Aesthetically and structurally, “El Equipo” is a terrific and haunting piece of documentary filmmaking that will leave you wanting to know more.

“The Team” was screened as part of the 2023 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdSerializd, Twitter, and view more of what she’s up to here.

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