Genocide – what role can a documentary film play in a court case?

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Granito

Pamela Yate

USA, 2011.

This is a story of destinies joined by Guatemala’s past, but also how a documentary film, intertwined with a nation’s turbulent history, emerges as an active player in the present. Five main characters are connected by the Guatemala of 1982, then engulfed in a war in which the military exterminated nearly 200,000 Maya people. Now these five become integral to the overarching narrative of wrongs done and justice sought that they have pieced together, each adding their granito, their tiny grain of sand, to the epic tale.

Pamela Yates Pamela

In the beginning of the 1980s, a young American filmmaker named Pamela Yates set off to Guatemala with cinematographer Tom Sigel to document the civil war. When the Mountains Tremble, the resulting film released in 1983, went on to be widely screened and won several awards.

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize and the film was updated to include the intervening ten years and footage of the Nobel ceremony. And now When the Mountains Tremble is itself the subject of another film by Yates, Granito (which means ‘grain’), about how When the Mountains Tremble became evidence, a charge, in a Spanish international court case against the Guatemalan military involved in an alleged genocide of Maya civilians.

The first part of Granito, “A chronicle foretold” centres around the making of When the Mountains Tremble. Yates takes us with her in her memories and interviews some people involved, such as the journalist who helped her get access to the guerrillas, Naomi Rohth-Arriaza, now an international lawyer. A recurrent image throughout the film is that of the young Yates tapping the microphone’s windshield, as if to assure us she was really there. In this first part, Yates also introduces most of the protagonists, including the attorney for the genocide case, Almuneda Bernabeu; forensic archivist Kate Doyle; and Fredy Peccerelli, forensic anthropologist. The extensive summary of the old film is at least helpful for those who have never seen it.

The second part centres around the attempts to bring the case to the Spanish court as a genocide executed by and under the responsibility of the army. Vital here, Doyle explains, is to produce evidence not only of the military’s responsibility for ordering the massacre, but also of its execution by the soldiers and their reporting back to their superiors. Now all involved become a kind of team with a joint agenda: to provide as much evidence as possible. So Yates traces her old boxes of footage. For example the interview filmed with general Rios Montts, who in the interview admits he was responsible and his subordinates listened to him. With this, Yates can testify before the judge, Santiago Pedraz.

The third part is more symbolic in nature, taking one example as a kind of case study. That case is Alejandra García, whose father Fernando is one of the many disappeared. His remains are identified in the pit Peccerelli is excavating.

All this begs the question: What role can a documentary film play in a court case? Macarena Gómez-Barris writes about the examples of Chile and Guatemala (though not When the Mountains Tremble) to explore the power of visualization in reframing evidence, witnessing, and memory. 1)Macarena Gómez-Barris (2010). Visual Testimonies of Atrocity: Archives of Political Violence in Chile and Guatemala. Journal of Visual Culture 9, 409-419. She argues that visual culture can represent the complexity of memory, evidence, and truth in ways oral testimonies cannot. Therefore, visual culture can contribute to understanding history in important ways, especially in situations where dictatorial regimes try hard to erase their history. For example, in the film Bitter Memories by Nefertiti Kelley Farias and Carlos Bazua Morales (2000), as in When the Mountains Tremble, images of exhumations testify to the afterlife of collective violence. The visual, according to Gómez-Barris, enhances the ability to communicate often incommunicable stories of atrocity.

Gómez-Barris makes an effort to elucidate the power of visualization, for example, alongside oral testimonies. Surprisingly, Gómez-Barris does not problematise the medium of documentary film as evidence in legal cases. Instead, she speaks of visual evidence “not just as the objective witness of atrocity…”2)Idem, p. 41

Sticking to the case of Granito and When the Mountains Tremble, one question that arises is how the intention of the filmmaker relates to the quality of the film as evidence. The police records for example were probably not produced as part of a documentary argument. They were just administration and, as such, less charged, less biased.

The film When the Mountains Tremble is one piece of evidence among more traditional written and oral testimonies. And it is not the most important one: A secret service file named Operation Sofia and handed to Doyle, as well as police records found in an abandoned building, are other major sources of evidence of genocide and the army’s responsibility.

What does not help the film is Yates’ own omnipresence. Much of the information is conveyed in her voice-over, we see her all the time, in archival material as well as in more recent material, researching her archive and watching outtakes, visiting the places she filmed in When the Mountains Tremble. She says she felt part of the strategy sessions with Bernabeu. Was she part of them, or wasn’t she? Yates weaves herself into the whole court case in an unpleasant way. The protagonists she introduces in the first part as independent of each other all turn out to be involved in the research for the court case. So who was first in recruiting them, attorney Bernabeu or filmmaker Yates? Yates edits her own testimony in parallel with the testimonies of Doyle and Peccerelli, suggesting a team effort. She continuously draws attention to herself.

When the Mountains Tremble
In addition, Yates does nothing to avoid drama. Music steers the sentiment, and she frequently uses phrases about how the responsibility of speaking for the dead weighs on her shoulders. In the very beginning she remarks that both the general and she herself could not know that what she was about to film would become evidence in a court case. All this personalization stands in the way of what I think is the real story: of how persistence and collaboration eventually result in justice.
The results of all the efforts presented in the film are modest. In the end, Montts is not extradited. Two policemen are convicted for the disappearance and death of García, Alejandra’s father, a sentence based on the police records. The effect of When the Mountains Tremble as evidence remains unclear. Yates bit off more than she could chew.
In the meantime, Judge Pedraz continues to issue arrest warrants and extradition requests for individual suspects up to the present day.

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References   [ + ]

1. Macarena Gómez-Barris (2010). Visual Testimonies of Atrocity: Archives of Political Violence in Chile and Guatemala. Journal of Visual Culture 9, 409-419.
2. Idem, p. 41
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