On 23rd June 1968, Argentina’s two biggest clubs and fierce rivals, River Plate and Boca Juniors, played out a scoreless draw at River’s Monumental stadium. Moments after the whistle blew on a forgettable match, the day became etched in history, as 71 Boca fans died in a crush of people at the exit. The average age of the victims was 20.
“What interested me most in telling this story was the distinct versions of the tragedy.” I’m sat in a quiet Palermo café with Pablo Tesoriere, creator of ‘La Puerta 12’, a powerful documentary that, 40 years on, investigates the events of that day. “With passing of years, it [the tragedy of La Puerta 12] has almost become a thing of myth. Everyone believes they know what happened on that afternoon, and everyone believes they know the truth.”
A striking feature of the film, which was recently screened at the Human Rights Film Festival in Buenos Aires, is the lingering uncertainty over what caused the death of so many. Present day testimonies from survivors, witnesses, journalists and officials are littered with contradictions, showing that there is little more clarity now than in the snippets of archive media footage taken in the aftermath of the event. Did someone forget to open the door? Were the ticket barriers blocking the exit? Were the police to blame for driving back those at the front, while those behind continued to push unawares? Or was the official explanation – that this was simply an accident caused by too many people rushing to leave the stadium at once – accurate?
“What surprised me most was not the quantity of different versions of the same story, but the emphasis with which each person told their own version, as if each wanted to have their own truth be the absolute truth,” recalls Tesoriere, who spent a total of six years researching, filming and editing the documentary. “I wanted to show all the versions respectfully, otherwise it would have been a subjective documentary,” he adds.
The controversy and emotion surrounding the event has provoked a strong reaction in some viewers, Tesoriere tells me, with some shouting ‘liar’ at the screen when hearing a testimony that disagrees with their own. This, he says, is pleasing. “I wanted an active audience,” he says, eyes momentarily flashing with pride, “not a passive one that would watch a film and then just leave and get on with their lives.”
The young director, who at 28 was born long after the disaster at La Puerta 12, is desperate to spark fresh debate in society, not just about who is to blame for the disaster in 1968, but about the problems and violence that continue to haunt the world of football today. “Everyone knows it [the violence] happens, but no one talks about it. This is what the documentary sought: to generate awareness and remembrance, as much as anything else to prevent another tragedy.”
A Lesson Missed
Alarmingly, what should have changed the face of Argentine football has barely left a scar. According to Tesoriere, it is a matter of fortune that there has not been a repeat of the fatal ‘accident’. “The tragedy happened 40 years ago, but we are living La Puerta 12 in the exits and entrances of stadiums today. If you go to watch a game at River today, you will live the same scenario when you leave the stadium – the crush, the exit without lights, the problems with the police…it’s practically the same, and it’s pure luck that we haven’t had another tragedy.”
In both his documentary and in person, Tesoriere draws a contrast between La Puerta 12 and the Hillsborough disaster in the UK, where 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the stands. Two broadly comparable events with very distinct legacies. “After the similar tragedy in England, there was a full investigation. They changed the policies for entering and exiting the stadiums and the system of police control at matches. Measures were taken so that this would never happen again.”
At the Monumental stadium, the only change that came out of the catastrophe was cosmetic. Gate numbers became letters, La Puerta 12 is now La Puerta L, but otherwise remains the same. “In Argentina, we live in a society with little memory,” laments Tesoriere, “They changed the numbers into letters so that people don’t think about la Puerta 12 or remember that 71 people that died there.”
Bewildered, I ask how it could be that such a major catastrophe hasn’t prompted an overhaul of stadium security, and is barely even mentioned today? “Football in Argentina is dominated by marketing, and it’s no good to be associated with violence and death,” replies Tesoriere. “The people that handle the money aren’t interested in reflection.”
A Sign Of The Times
Argentine political history also adds an important layer of context, with the country under military rule at the time of the tragedy. “It happened in 1968, society was different then, people didn’t come out to protest on the street. Under the military government, people were scared. La Puerta 12 was declared an accident, the case was closed, and they changed the gate markings so it was forgotten about,” says Tesoriere.
He acknowledges that today, things would be different, especially in light of more recent disasters, such as the fire in Buenos Aires nightclub Cromañon in 2004, which killed 194 mainly young people. “Obviously, if it happened again today, there would be more coverage, more protest, more outrage…but this isn’t the idea, the idea is to prevent it.”
And so, 40 years on, a young director is trying to remind a new generation of how ugly the beautiful game can turn, and how badly things could go wrong again. Modest and softly-spoken, Tesoriere is passionate about the subject, and as he talks, he barely notices the coffee getting cold in front of him.
To his credit, ‘La Puerta 12’ has already had an impact: after a screening at the National Congress and with the help of local NGO ‘Salvemos el Fútbol’, a memorial plaque was finally placed at the site of the tragedy. Amazingly, this is the first official gesture of remembrance for the families of the victims, who finally have a place at which they can mourn their losses. On 23rd June, the anniversary date, the documentary will be presented at Boca Junior’s La Bombonera stadium.
But Tesoriere’s work isn’t finished, and he is currently putting the finishing touches on a new documentary about the violence in football today. The idea was conceived whilst making this film: “It’s like a La Puerta 12: part II,” he explains, “and I’m making it educational, almost like an encyclopaedia. Everyone talks about violence in football, but no one knows what it is, or where it comes from, or how the police should control it. It’s like a manual.”