Our cultural fascination with true crime sometimes veers on ugliness, enabled by buzzy, poor-taste docudramas and sympathetic serial killer biopics. I’ve racked up dozens of pro-tips on how not to get killed as a young woman by this point and could probably relay any number of grisly murders with indifference. It’s a saturated subgenre, one with little room for formal deviation, but Alejandro Hartmann’s latest documentary, The Photographer: Murder in Pinamar, eludes empty shock value in favor of a respectful, comprehensive account of Argentine photojournalist José Luis Cabezas’ 1997 murder.
Following his 2020 Netflix true crime series, Carmel: Who Killed Maria Marta?, Hartmann remains true to form, weaving together the sprawling details of another Argentine tragedy. At the time of his death, Cabezas was a well-liked and respected photographer for weekly news magazine Noticias. He was on assignment photographing summertime in Pinamar, an exclusive beach resort in Argentina frequented by businessmen and politicians—a kind of commercialized Xanadu for the wealthy.
Hartmann points to the tragedy of the matter without over-sentimentalizing. The focus is often pulled away from the brutal act and toward its cultural implications; chiefly, the “Don’t forget Cabezas” movement, popularized as the ravel of political ties to the murder became apparent. As recounted by Cabezas’ friend and colleague Gabriel Michi, the journo attended a gala party in Pinamar the night of his death. On his way home, Cabezas was kidnapped, handcuffed and tortured, then shot twice in the head before his body was burned in his car and left in a ditch. Police could not identify the body until Michi was brought out to the scene where he saw Cabezas’ camera, distinguishable by his children’s stickers.
There were two primary lines of investigation, both bracketed by unscrupulous politics: The Buenos Aires Provincial Police and postal mogul Alfredo Yabrán. Both had been previously targeted by Noticias, with the former inspiring an article aptly titled “Damned Police,” an examination of the force’s violence and ties to gambling and drug trafficking. The latter, however, runs deeper than bad cops and their illicit affairs, in part because of Yabrán’s significant political ties to President Carlos Menem’s administration.
Yabrán was a notoriously private businessman who largely controlled the flow of domestic goods within Argentina, his grand influence perfusing mail service, air traffic and tax offices. Around the time of the murder, he was also being accused of corruption by Argentina’s economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, prompting Noticias to launch an editorial investigation into his misconduct. Cavallo maintained that Yabrán possessed too much power within the country’s political sphere, especially with the privatization of the post office in 1997.
Yabrán’s motive against Cabezas was petty: Halfway through the film, after establishing some of Argentina’s historically fraught politics, Hartmann introduces a lethal photograph. It’s a picture of Yabrán, stealthily snapped by Cabezas in 1996, which featured the tycoon strolling the beaches of Pinamar with his wife. Until this point, Yabrán had remained shielded from the public, and expressed pride in his ability to dodge the press. The photo was soon splashed across Noticias’ front page with the headline “Yabrán attacks again.” This put Cabezas on all the wrong people’s radars.
Hundreds of subpoenaed phone logs later revealed that Yabrán had been in contact with practically the entire Ministry of Justice’s cabinet shortly after Cabezas’ murder, from prosecutors to ministers to officials of the presidential palace. The body of evidence against Yabrán and the police were mushrooming overtop of them all, each shifty affiliate contradicting another—which only angered the public more.
As such, The Photographer is at times overly dense, packing information into the film at the expense of the crime at hand. Though Hartmann cannot be faulted for the complexity of the case—one which begins with a photojournalist’s death and soon becomes a heady conspectus on democracy, corruption and civil protest—pockets of the film could have been contextualized better or omitted altogether. Audiences unfamiliar with Argentina’s checkered political history might not be able to easily keep up with the seesaw of government officials who either abetted or censured Yabrán at the time. (Google was invaluable to me as the Yabrán-Menem-Cavallo debacle began to unfold onscreen, as the shift away from a nationalized post office was a bit vague.) Couple this with its sagging middle and The Photographer’s political congestion can feel overdrawn.
The civic unrest after Cabezas’ murder was justified in its own right, but was also just one of many sociopolitical scandals to emerge within 1990s Argentina. Examples cited within the film include the murder of María Soledad Morales in 1990, the AMIA bombing and assassination of conscript Omar Carrasco in 1994 and the Río Tercero explosion as well as the staggering death of Carlos Menem Jr. in 1995. “It’s like a drop came and overflowed a great putrid glass, and the population said ‘enough,’” noted one interviewee. The swell of public dissension, for many, had been almost a decade in the works. The Photographer, by extension, then feels like a natural falling action to this cultural indignation, 25 years on.
When considering the sheer volume of murdered journalists within so-called democracies—most recently, Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh who died at the hands of an Israeli soldier—one might parse through these cases as exemplary of the selective authoritarianism of the uber-wealthy or criminally powerful. Through tactful, interrogative interviews, Hartmann shapes The Photographer as an act of resistance, one which acknowledges the power of the public while still pledging to remember Cabezas’ legacy as a photojournalist rather than a hapless target. Though occasionally bloated with context, the film offers a shrewd alternative to contemporary true crime fare, favoring a neutral recitation of an incendiary crime.
Director: Alejandro Hartmann
Writers: Alejandro Hartmann, Gabriel Bobillo, Tatiana Mereñuk
Release Date: May 19, 2022
Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.