Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Documentary as Witness

Pamela Yates’s 2011 documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator which I recently watched on PBS World is one of those rare birds. Granito is journalistic, historical, activist, autobiographical, and reflexive all at the same time.

Granito builds on and takes off of Yates’s 1983 documentary When the Mountains Tremble, a film about what was happening in Guatemala in the 1980s. Yates managed in When the Mountains Tremble to obtain access to and interviews with members of the rebel army the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and members of the government, including President Efrain Rios-Montt, and the Guatemalan military who took her into the Guatemalan Highlands where she documented the genocide against the Highland Maya in the 1980s

Granito begins with Yates reflecting on the filming of When the Mountains Tremble revealing to those of us who are watching Granito how the earlier film was made. Yates’s memories of and reflections on the making of When the Mountains Tremble continue throughout the almost 90 minutes of Granito stimulated, in part, by Almudena Bernabeu’s request, Bernabeu was the lead lawyer in the court case against the perpetrators of the Guatemalan Genocide brought by Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize alumni Rigoberta Menchú winding its way through the Spanish Courts since 1999, that Yates and her film might serve as a witness in the court case against those who perpetrated the Guatemalan Genocide.

Spain, for those of you who don’t know, recognizes the principle of international jurisdiction in crimes of genocide and terrorism, crime which, according to international treaties and law, must be prosecuted. This is why it was Spanish courts which brought charges against Chilean dictator and mass murderer Augusto Pinochet and asked for his extradition from Great Britain in 1999. The UK, by the way, decided not to extradite Pinochet for trial for health reasons.

Yates, whose heart was always with the Guatemalan rebels and the victims of the Guatemalan Genocide even in When the Mountains Tremble, had long wanted to do something to bring those who committed genocide in Guatemala to justice and thus agrees to allow her film and its outtakes, which were witness to a genocide in Guatemala, to be used as witness for the prosecution in the attempt to bring the Guatemalan political and military elite who committed genocide in Guatemala to justice.

Granito begins to follow this court case as it winds its way through the Spanish courts around 2006 and follows the search for evidence beyond interviews with those who were witness to the atrocities of the Guatemalan military and the Guatemalan government, that would provide the basis for convicting those who perpetrated the crime of genocide in Guatemala. Bernabeu is aided her case against the perpetrators of mass murder in Guatemala not only by Yates but also by Menchú, whose father was a member of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and who was killed in the fire that destroyed the Spanish embassy the rebels had taken over in Guatemala City in 1980, Antonio Caba, a survivor of the massacre committed by the Guatemalan military in Ilon in 1982, Kate Doyle, an analyst at the National Security Archive in the US who successfully scours US documents for evidence related to the Guatemalan Genocide and who eventually gets hold of a copy of “Plan Sola”, a document that details the Guatemalan army’s scorched earth campaign against the Maya in the 1980’s, Alejandra Garcia, a young lawyer whose intellectual father was murdered by the police during Guatemala’s Civil War and who now seeks justice for her father and others murdered by the military and police during the Civil War, Fredy Peccerelli, a Guatemalan American forensic anthropologist engaged in digging up and examining the bones of the victims of the Guatemalan Civil War and whose life is threatened during the course of the film, Gustavo Meon, a former soldier in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and now a lawyer who is mining archival materials, including a recently discovered cache of Guatemalan police documents which reveal in great detail the fate of the victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, and Naomi Roht-Arriaza , who saw the genocide as a journalist in Guatemala in the 1980s and now a lawyer.

What those seeking justice for the victims of the Guatemalan Civil War and Genocide must, of course, do is prove that those in the upper levels of the government and the military, including Guatemalan president Rios-Montt, were directly or knowingly involved in the mass murders in some way, shape, or form. This is no easy task given that dictators and politicians since Adolf Hitler have learned to cover their trail by destroying documents or not document what they are doing in the first place, and because, as Bernabeu points at one point in Granito, it is difficult if not impossible to take away the privileges of the privileged. Thanks to interviews, forensic evidence, and documentary evidence accumulated by those witnessing for the prosecution Spain’s National Court formally charged eight with genocide in Guatemala, including Rios-Montt, in 2006.

On this optimistic and heroic note Granito ends but not without some reflexive dissonance. Yates admits that she and others had overestimated the strength of the Guatemalan rebels and underestimated how far Rios-Montt was willing to go to put down the Civil War. The documentary as critical and reflective.

What Yates did not ignore in the 1980s and does not forget today was the role the US government, who supported the military government in Guatemala and opposed land reform in the name of a Cold War mentality which saw anything smacking of land reform as “communist” and indigenous rebel forces throughout Latin America as instruments of the USSR, China, or Cuba, played in the human rights violations and genocide in Guatemala, human rights violations the US government was fully aware of. As Doyle notes, the US government may not have been involved in Guatemala's human rights violations or genocide but it was clearly responsible for the Cold War ideology of us and them and the organizational structures that carried both out. The documentary as fable.

Some critics, like Chuck Bowen and Paul Brunick, have found Yates’s “agitprop” documentary too simple minded in its Manichean good simple minded peasants versus evil dictators mentality. Bowen condemns Yates’s documentary as being too exploitative in its use of the victims of the genocide to manipulate viewer emotions, too amnesiac or uninterested in the bureaucratic “nonsense” that can lead to a lack of punishment for mass murder, too overlong, too boring (as if boring wasn’t in the eye of the observer), too pompous, too obnoxiously earnest and Yates too uncharismatic. Brunick accuses Yates’s of ignoring “well-documented” claims that Menchú exaggerated in her 1993 memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú, the last a guilt by association argument.

Hmm. Really? Casablanca Moment 45,007,786,887: I a shocked, shocked to learn that films, including documentary films, manipulate viewers. See my earlier blog on the documentary as emotionally wrenching. Whether Menchú stretched the truth or not, a far too common occurrence these days among memoirists (shout out to James Frey, Herman Rosenblat, Binjamin Wilkomirski, Matt McCarthy, Helen Dale, Margaret Seltzer…) doesn’t change the fact that Menchú is not the only witness to a Guatemalan genocide in which at least 100,000 Guatemalans were killed in the civil war and 40,000 civilians “disappeared”, most of them Mayan and intellectuals, in a country of some 7 million in the 1980s. Some number the total number of killed and “disappeared at around 200,000.

This viewer did not find Granito “boring” or “overlong”. I was riveted to the television screen as I watched it. I did find it rather too optimistic for my taste but then I am an armchair activist turned cynic who thanks to living in the United States has learned just how difficult it is to bring about real humanitarian change and just how narcissistic Western humans are. I didn't find Yates "pompous", in fact, I actually admire Yates and others like her who keep up the struggle for justice and fairness in a Western world where people seem to care more about their own petty and banal personal pleasure principle gratifications and conspicuously consuming the goods that they increasingly come to define themselves by than the poverty they are complicit in, the injustice they are complicit in and turn away from, and the mass murders and genocides they are complicit in, turn away from, preferring instead to blissfully ignore. As to the charge of bureaucratic inadequacy, there might be some merit to this charge if, as Yates pointed out on the PBS website for the film, that Granito is more a film about the documentary art of filmmaking and that it was "not meant to be objective [but was instead based on] my point of view, my life experiences and the experiences of the Guatemalans who have never given up on the quest for justice".

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, PBS website,
Chuck Bowen, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, 11 September 2011, Slate,
Paul Brunick, “A Return to Guatemala’s Civil War, in Black and White”, 13 September 2011, New York Times,
Larry Rohter, “Nobel Winner Accused of Stretching the Truth, 15 December 1998, New York Times On the Web,

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