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.

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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.


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