Travels With Saúl
How two UT students with a camera hooked up with an aspiring journalist from Guatemala to tell the stories of his homeland
When Ryan Polomski and Frank Bustoz's bus pulled into the main square of San Juan Atitán, a small town in the Guatemalan highlands, the two then-University of Texas students were ready to explore a village that proudly decked itself out in distinctive, handmade clothing. They were ready to film the villagers' rough woolen handweaves, dyed deep reds and purples, and to interview the women who had woven flower designs into their blouses themselves. They were fully prepared to meet a village full of men who wore long black tunics, straw hats, and jaunty red shawls -- they just weren't prepared to meet all of them, all at the same time, the second they stepped off the bus. Yet, there they were: a community gathering of a couple hundred men, lined up on benches in their nearly identical outfits, staring over their shoulders at the filmmakers as they struggled to unload their gear from the bus. Suddenly, those who had come to watch had become the watched.
"That's when you know you're really in Guatemala," Polomski laughed.
"That's when you know you're glad you've got Saúl, man," added Bustoz.
Saúl Misael Roblero Perez is the third director of the documentary Hecho a Mano: Tres Historias de Guatemala (Made by Hand: Three Stories From Guatemala), but he is not a UT student. In fact, Bustoz and Polomski only met him when they arrived in Guatemala a matter of weeks before. But quickly realizing that Roblero, himself an aspiring journalist, could provide a window to his own culture better than the two foreigners could ever manage alone, they brought him onboard not as a translator or guide with a "special thanks" in the credits, but as a full partner and collaborator. Throughout the three vignettes that compose the film, Roblero appears onscreen, questioning and interacting with the Mayan villagers as they explain their clothing, religious ceremonies, and the civil war that racked the countryside for two decades.
At first viewing, the technique seems odd, better suited to television news than documentary film. But it soon becomes clear that the style is well-suited to the talents and aspirations of their Guatemalan collaborator, as well as their own role as American filmmakers in a developing country.
Bustoz and Polomski initially went to Guatemala not to make a documentary, but to volunteer in the Escuela Guatemateca de Communicaciones (Guatemalan School of Communications), an institute devoted to helping rural students, mainly indigenous, learn media skills. Their goal, Polomski says, was to help the institute develop ways rural Guatemalans can use documentaries to represent themselves.
"Guatemalan TV is a huge monopoly that shows entertainment and doesn't really represent rural people," said Polomski. "The institute is based on the idea that Guatemala needs a wider variety of media to create a democracy that's really responsive to people's needs."
The two filmmakers held a fundraiser for the school and arrived in Guatemala with boxes of donated equipment tripods, lights, a computer, and some cash. But they soon realized that the school was not yet fully developed and that if they wanted to participate in an alternative media project, they would have to develop one themselves. That alternative materialized in the form of Roblero, who was at the time semiemployed as a teacher at the school and who jumped at the idea of shooting a documentary with the Americans.
"As documentary filmmakers, we could immediately relate to this guy who wants to be a reporter," said Polomski. "It was an immediate, instantaneous relationship."
Ditching the EGC, the three embarked on a shooting trip through the highlands. While Bustoz and Polomski had come to Guatemala with specific interests, such as indigenous religion and the civil war, they relied primarily on Roblero's knowledge of the country to choose their destinations. Of the towns they visited, three made it into the 27-minute film: San Juan Atitán, where they talked about the local clothing styles; Acul, where they learned of the enduring impact of the civil war; and Chichicastenango, where they witnessed a Mayan religious ceremony. In all of these villages, Roblero made the contacts and translated from Mam, the Mayan dialect he speaks, to the Spanish in which he communicated with Polomski and Bustoz (except when yet another translator was needed for other Mayan languages).
Bustoz explains that the more they shot, the more they realized that in Roblero they had found not only a co-director, but star.
"It became immediately obvious that Saúl's good on camera," said Bustoz. "We still shot a lot of footage, enough for four documentaries, but once we were back in the editing room, it was obvious what our story was. It was Saúl."
And so, Hecho a Mano presents not just rural Mayans talking about their clothing, religion, and war, but a young, earnest Guatemalan in a crisp white shirt, gripping a microphone and learning, along with the audience, about his country. It's a successful experiment -- Roblero's interactions with his countrymen create compelling scenes out of what otherwise could have been static talking heads. One man of San Juan Atitán, for example, tells Roblero that when he leaves the village, he always changes his clothing so he won't be harassed for indigenous outfits. Roblero, his eyes wide, speaks the audience's thoughts: "This is discrimination!" The man laughs as he responds -- "Exactly!" -- a gentle reminder to Roblero, and the audience, that being rural doesn't make you naive.
Polomski says the film has received some criticism for revealing nothing about Roblero beyond his role as reporter. But he explains that, while they certainly had the footage for a more personal documentary -- during their journey, they spent their nights in highland hotels interviewing each other about their lives -- such a film is not what Roblero would have wanted.
"I didn't want to come back with a film that wasn't true to what we had set out to do," Polomski explained.
Beyond such artistic considerations, Bustoz adds that there are cultural concerns that made them want to share control with Roblero.
"I get tired of watching documentaries that have Europeans talking about Brazilian culture, or Guatemalan culture," said Bustoz. "Why not just have Guatemalans talking about Guatemalan culture?"
The answer to "why not?" typically revolves around money, as most Guatemalans lack the resources to make films on their own. This is not to say that collaboration is without problems. Roblero, for example, faced family pressure to stay home and look for work rather than cavort around the countryside with foreigners. Another hurdle has been getting Roblero to the United States for screenings -- Hecho a Mano has already shown at Cinematexas and Cine Las Americas, and has been accepted to three other festivals in Arizona, Oregon, and at CineSol Latino Film Festival on South Padre Island. But while the several-thousand-dollar visa fee is well out of reach for either Roblero or the Americans, Polomski hopes the letters of invitation Roblero has received from festival sponsors will enable him to qualify for a visa at a special rate.
In addition, Bustoz and Polomski hope to make another trip possible -- their own return to Guatemala. They are currently looking for funds to return to Acul to shoot a longer documentary about the villagers' recovery from one of the many massacres that bloodied the countryside in the 1980s. In the meantime, they are working to distribute the film, particularly focusing on classrooms. They have also launched a Web site called Guatemala Stories Video Project, which they hope will blossom into a hub where Guatemalans and North American filmmakers can develop other collaborations or where Guatemalan filmmakers can go for help finding audiences up north for their own independent projects.
However, the filmmakers stress that the audience in Guatemala is just as important as the one in the United States. They hope the copies of Hecho a Mano they sent to Roblero will help convince his family that his jaunt through the highlands was worth it. And in the villages where they filmed, they hope it will serve as a source of pride.
"People often talk about media diluting culture," said Polomski. "But we hope projects like these can help strengthen these communities. ... People talk about this being the information age, but to have a man showing the weave of his shirt and what it means, that's also a form of information and communication."
At the end of Hecho a Mano, Roblero stands atop a building in Chichicastenango, the village where he had interviewed a Mayan priest about his ceremonies. As the late-afternoon sky grays behind him, he reminds the audience that despite the differences in the villages they have visited, all share the Maya heritage that undergirds Guatemalan culture. Then, with a final smile that seems to suggest pride, or hope, or maybe just a little nervousness, he stares straight into the camera and says goodbye to his audience.
"That's all for today," he says. "We'll see you next time."
Hecho a Mano: Tres Historias de Guatemala will screen at the CineSol 2003 Latino Film Festival, which kicks off June 26 at South Padre Island. For more information, see www.cinesol.com. A copy of Hecho a Mano may be purchased at www.guatemalastories.com.