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Outtakes Get Their Day in Court

Pamela Yates returns to a haunted Guatemala in 'Granito: How To Nail a Dictator'

By Anne S. Lewis, Fri., Sept. 16, 2011

<i>Granito: How To Nail a Dictator</i>
Granito: How To Nail a Dictator

Filmmaker Pamela Yates hails from a tiny Irish-Catholic enclave in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania where, she says, good storytelling was highly valued, much of it focusing on "the cruel, rich mine owners and the Molly Maguires who opposed them." So there's a certain predestination to Yates' attraction, as a docmaker, to the myriad hotbeds worldwide of human rights struggles between the haves and have-nots.

It's what drew her to violence-torn Guatemala in the early Eighties for a look at that decades-long civil war, which pitted the impoverished indigenous population against the (U.S-supported) right-wing military regime and the landowners and business interests it represented. (In 1999, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized to the Guatemalans for U.S. support of the counter-insurgency campaign, justified at the time as essential to containing the spread of communism in Latin America.) For her celebrated 1983 film, When the Mountains Tremble (which won a Special Jury Prize at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival), Yates and co-director Newton Thomas Sigel filmed combat missions with both Mayan guerrillas and the army. Yates even survived a troop transport helicopter crash. They also bagged footage which contained evidence of the brutal genocide and forced "disappearances" being conducted in villages by anti-guerrilla militias against the leftist, mostly Mayan, insurgents during the 17-month reign of Gen.Efraín Ríos Montt, whom Yates also managed to interview.

That footage from the 1983 film, some of it in outtakes that had been sitting for years in storage, would unexpectedly become evidence essential to a recent push by human rights activists and family members of the Guatemalan "disappeared" to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities and genocide in Spanish National Court. Yates' new film, Granito: How To Nail a Dictator, folds footage from the 1983 film together with new footage to tell the story of how all of this came together – or rather, is beginning to come together – almost 30 years later; it's a difficult, plodding, setback-laden process that's had some limited success. Yet, as explained in the film by Mayan activist, genocide victim, and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, the operative principle is the notion of granito de arena, or tiny grains of sand, a Mayan concept that means each person can individually make a small contribution to positive social change and collectively make great changes to further equality and human rights.

As Yates observes in the film, "'witnessing' is the essence of being a documentarian – capturing moments in time, never knowing how history will judge them or how the documentary will be used in the future."

Austin Chronicle: At what point did you decide to get back into the Guatemalan story and make Granito? What were the factors you considered in deciding to make this film?

Pamela Yates: I went to Guatemala in 2003 to present the first ever public showing [in Guatemala] of When the Mountains Tremble nearly 20 years after it had been made. The screening was packed, standing-room only. In the audience was one of the lawyers working on the genocide case, and she approached me afterward, asking whether I would be willing to go into all the outtakes from the film to look for additional forensic evidence. Since two of the generals that were being investigated were actually in When the Mountains Tremble, it was an exciting prospect. I also learned from the Guatemalans that When the Mountains Tremble had been shown thousands of times clandestinely during the war, and that it had become part of the collective memory of the country. Going through the old outtakes with Peter Kinoy, the producer and editor, I realized that I was in the filmed material, because the cinematographer would turn to me on every take – I was doing sound – for a clap stick. So I was visually present as a witness to those times. And then, as we began to find incriminating evidence, I thought, this is a story of a lifetime. It is a story of destiny, of so many lives that intersected in 1982 and that are once again coming together, that I was compelled to tell this story. For example, the central character in When the Mountains Tremble was a 22-year-old Maya human rights defender named Rigoberta Menchú whose family members had been killed and who'd fled into exile. When the Mountains Tremble helped make her known around the world, and 10 years later, she became the first indigenous woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Using her stature as a Nobel Laureate, Rigoberta originated the current genocide case for which I was searching for evidence.

Granito is also a film about documentary filmmaking – how I got started, the choices I made along the way, and how what I thought I was doing back then takes on a whole other meaning in the context of the present. It's about how documentary filmmaking has changed me, too.

AC: Are there common/recurring challenges in the making of films about vindicating human rights?

PY: The recurring challenges are how to make these films hopeful. How to show a way forward, how to find people to put in the films that have become leaders by their sheer force of will and courage. One hallmark of my films is that I never use experts observing. You have to be a player in the story. You can be an expert, but you have to be participating in the story, whether you are poor, disenfranchised, a survivor, or the kind of person that normally doesn't have a voice in mainstream media. I had to find a way to use the immense power of documentary filmmaking to combine the beauty with the anger. I use the elements of cinema: expressive cinematography, an emotive musical score, and nonlinear editing that are evocative of feature filmmaking techniques.

AC: Given your conclusion that "witnessing" is the essence of being a documentary-maker and the key role that your found footage from the earlier film subsequently played, does this make you shoot a lot more footage than you otherwise might when making your films, so as not to miss something that will later turn out to be important? 

PY: I love this question! I shoot more footage now because the feature-length documentary Granito is the flagship for a whole slew of other media offerings.

AC: What is the current political situation in Guatemala, as far as the characters we follow in the film and the struggle for human rights?

PY: There are two salient things unfolding in Guatemala rights now. The first is that a tipping point for justice may be happening, and I hope Granito can contribute to that. More army and police officials have been arrested in the last three months for murder, torture, and crimes against humanity from the time of the war than in the previous 30 years. A former army chief of staff under General Ríos Montt, Hector Mario López Fuentes, has been arrested and charged with genocide. He's the first army officer in the history of Latin America to be indicted for genocide. Ríos Montt should be very afraid.

The second thing is that presidential elections are on September 11th, and the leading candidate is a former general who commanded army troops in one of the most hard-hit areas during the war in the 1980s. Rigoberta Menchú is also running for president, and though she is not expected to win, she is building a political movement meant to transform power relationships in Guatemala.

One of the great gifts of my life has been my longtime friendship with Rigoberta Menchú. To have seen her suffering after the death of her mother and father and siblings, and to have known her in exile when she spent 10 years tirelessly traveling the world, living out of a suitcase, trying to stop the violence in Guatemala which led to her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet she never rested on her laurels, and she now is running for president to make fundamental changes in her country. Rigoberta has a great sense of humor and is a visionary leader.

AC: What's next for you?

PY: Granito is the third film in a quartet of documentaries about human rights focused on transitional justice. The first, State of Fear, was based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The second, The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, was filmed across four continents, over five years, and tells the story of the first six tumultuous years of the ICC. The third is Granito. And the final film will be Memoryscape, about collective memory and memorialization. What do we choose to forget, and what do we choose to remember, and how do we memorialize the event? Memoryscape will be a global film, taking place in several countries where citizens are actively engaged in debate about how their history should be remembered. One of the stories will be in the U.S.


The AFS Documentary Tour presents Granito: How To Nail a Dictator on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). Director Pamela Yates will do a post-screening Q&A via Skype. For ticket info, see www.austinfilm.org.

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