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HomeArchiveHistoric film traces Guatemala’s bloody past

Historic film traces Guatemala’s bloody past

From the print edition

GUATEMALA CITY – On March 1, 2,000 Guatemalans rose in a standing ovation as credits rolled for the nationwide premier of a U.S. documentary film about their country’s long fight to pin down a former tyrant charged with genocide.

“Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” tells the story of Guatemala’s brutal 36-year internal war, which left 200,000 dead, and the subsequent quest for justice in a climate of ingrained impunity.

The film’s narrative is guided by filmmaker and lead protagonist Pamela Yates, who said she wanted “to appeal to emerging filmmakers” by sharing her own experience. In “Granito,” she merges her own story with that of Guatemala’s recent history in an exploration of both historic and personal memory.

Yates, determined to show the optimism she saw in a leftist guerrilla movement against the repressive military state, filmed her first documentary in Guatemala in the early 1980s. At the time, the Guatemalan government, led by dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, was at the peak of its scorched-earth strategy to wipe out any perceived support for the guerrillas.

The results were countless massacres of Mayan communities concentrated in the western highlands. Years later, after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, a U.N.-backed truth commission pinned more than 93 percent of the deaths on the army and labeled them acts of genocide. Yates filmed the devastation the army caused in Mayan communities by spending months traveling with guerrilla groups.

After getting that side of the story, Yates managed to cross over enemy lines and secure unheard-of access to the Guatemalan army. As she explains in the film, Yates believes it was her 29-year-old, innocent Gringuita appearance at the time that enabled her to penetrate the ranks of the usually secretive army, who agreed to take her on a helicopter patrol.

During that patrol, guerrillas shot down the helicopter, nearly killing the passengers onboard. After the incident, superstitious army officials decided Yates had brought them good luck, so they decided to allow her unprecedented filming access. She recorded a series of revealing interviews with key military men who were behind the massacres.

Some of the footage was used to tell indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú’s emblematic story in “When the Mountains Tremble.” That film was an international success, and Menchú later became the first indigenous person to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Guatemala Film 2

Pamela Yates films in the Guatemalan highlands in 1982. Footage is being used as forensic evidence in a Guatemalan genocide case – the story told in her current film, “Granito.” Courtesy of Newton Thomas Sige

Because Guatemala was under a repressive government regime at the time, “When the Mountains Tremble” was so explosive when it was released that it was watched only clandestinely, until Yates returned in 2003 for the film’s first public screening.

After that screening, which took place two decades after she had first filmed in Guatemala, Yates was approached by a human rights lawyer who hoped the film’s outtakes would contain incriminating evidence against Guatemalan military generals. The lawyer was building a case in Spain against Ríos Montt and four other former generals at Menchú’s request.

After the conflict ended in 1996, human rights activists were divided about how to move forward. Many army commanders remained in high-level government positions. Ríos Montt ran for president in 2003. The army’s continuing power, in addition to Guatemala’s 98 percent impunity rate, led many to believe that prosecution in Guatemala for war crimes was impossible.

Meanwhile, inspired by Spain’s 1998 indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses, in 1999 Menchú organized an effort to bring charges in Spain against the alleged authors of Guatemala’s bloodshed, including Ríos Montt.

Yates jumped on board. After several months trawling old boxes of 16 mm film, Yates and her team found crucial film evidence against Ríos Montt to take to court. Not only was it the first time that a former Latin American general would be charged with genocide, but also it was the first time that documentary footage would be submitted as evidence in such a case.

The filming of “Granito” began there. Granito, which means grain of sand, is a Latin American analogy for collective social change. The belief is that change does not happen from individual efforts, but rather from collective ones. The granitos in Yates’ film are activists, lawyers, campaign organizers, scientists and academics who worked to “nail” Ríos Montt.

Two of the most compelling characters in the film will be awarded the prestigious ALBA-Puffin International Award for Human Rights Activism for their work in Guatemala. In their drive to put Ríos Montt behind bars, Fredy Peccerelli and Kate Doyle appear unstoppable.

Peccerelli, a 41-year-old forensic anthropologist, is Guatemala’s answer to the fictional film character Indiana Jones. As founding director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, he has exhumed thousands of remains of people who were disappeared or murdered during and after the conflict. Although many victims’ families celebrate Peccerelli’s work, he receives frequent death threats, presumably from those who are legally targeted by evidence he collects.

“In 2003, when Ríos Montt ran for [president], we would get threats saying ‘If the general doesn’t win, we’re gonna kill you,’” Peccerelli said.

Peccerelli and Yates testified at a hearing against Ríos Montt in Spain. Alongside them was Doyle, 51, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archives in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Doyle has spent years studying declassified military documents that detail the strategies behind the Guatemalan conflict. In 2009, when Doyle was in Guatemala, she was handed a document that seemed so significant that she left the country before even reading it. She’d been leaked a collection of Guatemalan military documents known as Plan Sofia, which outlined how the army planned and carried out its scorched-earth plan under Ríos Montt.

Doyle said the documents detail a functioning hierarchy within the army, incriminating Ríos Montt as the alleged intellectual author of the massacres. Even so, she said, “chain of command cases are very, very tough to prove.”

Yates’ hunt through her own film archives revealed a crucial piece of evidence: Ríos Montt appearing in one filmed interview in which he claims to have total control of the army. “If I can’t control the army, then what am I doing here?” Ríos Montt boasts. That clip, combined with the work of other granitos led to Spain’s indictment of the former general.

But Guatemala blocked Ríos Montt’s extradition order from Spain. Yates said it was a blow to the team, as she thought they “would be triumphant, [the generals] would be jailed, and it would be a happy ending.”

Despite that setback, the team’s efforts are now paying off in an unexpected way: Ríos Montt is set to be tried for genocide in Guatemala (TT, Feb. 3, Jan. 26). Evidence turned up during case preparation in Spain, including the “Granito” clip, was added to the Guatemalan case against the general.
A trial against him has been set for April.

Yates couldn’t predict the Guatemalan reaction to “Granito,” but when she heard the audience laugh at her ’80s interview with Ríos Montt, she said, “They know him, and they got it.”

After the screening, María Elena López, 41, who travelled 200 kilometers with friends from their Mayan village to see the film, said, “We came here to learn about the historic memory of our country. If we can’t learn it, we’re condemned to repeat it. … What we want now is for our legal system to bring justice for the genocide.”


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