Jonathan Perel has made a stealthily powerful one-man documentary about corporate involvement in human rights atrocities during Argentina’s military dictatorship after the 1976 coup. It’s an account of how companies assisted in state terror: the kidnap, torture and murder of employees considered subversive, mostly trade unionists or political activists.
Perel’s approach is startlingly – almost maddeningly – plain. Like a private detective, he parks his car outside 25 companies exposed by a 2005 government report about corporate accountability and the repression of workers during the regime. Over the footage he films from his car documenting the mundane comings and goings outside the buildings today, Perel calmly reads extracts from the report’s case studies.
Each study begins the same way, with a number: how many workers at the company were murdered, “disappeared” or arrested. The pattern is strikingly familiar: bosses identified undesirable employees who were then arrested at work or at home. Some survivors testified to being interrogated by military personnel holding their company file. Victims were often tortured on company premises or driven off to detention centres in company vehicles. Some businesses benefited during the dictatorship by having their private debt transferred to the state, or increased their profits by repressing the workforce.
There is nothing remotely graphic here and no detail about what happened to the victims. Nothing about the disappearances on “death flights”, where people were pushed alive from military planes above the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean. The film’s meditative style is slow and patience-testing: no explainers or background information about the coup or dictatorship. But Perel’s surveillance footage becomes increasingly sinister, and the repetition is gripping in its way. You begin to wonder at the scale of this, how it’s possible that so many people were capable of actively participating in murder and torture on this scale; human rights groups put the total number killed at 30,000.
• Corporate Accountability is available from 13 October on Mubi.