POV: Discovering Dominga uses Denese’s intensely personal journey as a vehicle to tell a political story. How do you create an atmosphere where your subject feels comfortable to share so intimately?
Patricia Flynn: It’s my belief that there is nothing more important in approaching the subject of a personal documentary than respect — respect for the characters as people, not just as subjects of the film. I think that we were able to convey to Denese and her family that the intention of this film was to portray their story with respect and honesty, and that we were deeply committed to bringing their story to light. The fact that our production team was willing to follow Denese on her journey wherever it led — even when it meant trekking over mountain roads, down rivers, sleeping with or without beds or hot water, and being willing to face potentially dangerous situations. All of that created trust, and must have been convincing evidence of our commitment to this project.
It was, and still is, emotionally difficult for Denese to talk about the events surrounding her parents’ death. The wounds are still not healed. But she was willing to open her life to the camera because she knew it was a chance to tell the world about the crimes committed against her parents and her community. After years of living alone with her memories, and feeling that no one would either believe in or care about her story, Denese saw the film as a chance to focus attention on the injustice that had occurred in her Guatemalan homeland — something she had never dreamed was possible. So, as difficult as it was for this modest and shy woman to give up her privacy, she never hesitated, nor did her husband Blane, even when it meant revealing the most intimate and painful aspects of their personal lives. The reaction of the community of Rio Negro survivors was similar. The slogan we heard many times in Guatemala was “never again” — a phrase that implied the importance of telling the truth about the horrors of the past so that they would never again be repeated.
POV: In editing, how do you interweave the personal and the political seamlessly?
Flynn: I knew when we began editing that the emotional power of Denese’s story would be its heart and soul. We had already decided that there would be no narrator, that the voices of the characters would provide the narrative thread, and that the story would be told as Denese’s personal journey. Above all, we wanted to give viewers a sense that they were accompanying Denese in this odyssey of discovery, learning as it unfolded, just as she did. So the challenge in editing was how to weave in the bigger political and historical context without detracting from the emotional impact of the personal story. We knew we didn’t want this film to be a ponderous treatise about the war in Guatemala, and we didn’t want to use experts and “talking heads.” Instead the voices of the characters who were part of Denese’s world both in Iowa and in Guatemala would tell the political narrative in their own words, and from their own perspectives. That allowed us to keep a mood of intimacy even when we broached the subjects of history and politics.
We also experimented in the editing room with using text cards at key moments to convey essential historical and narrative information. The idea was to reveal just enough information as the film unfolded so that the audience wouldn’t be confused, and their questions would be answered as they arose both for Denese in her journey and for the audience as participants. My goal was always to develop a style in these sections that would stay true to the emotional and lyrical tone of the rest of the film — integrating powerful video images, music and text. Since actual archival footage of the war was almost non-existent, we chose to use images that were suggestive and symbolic rather than literal: the image of a burning village, the shadow of helicopters across the landscape, a Maya woman crying over a dead body. As the film took shape through a process of trial and error in the editing room, we were attentive to what my editor Jennifer Chinlund referred to as “what this film will tolerate.” Ultimately, in the mystery of the creative process, we discovered the right balance between the personal and political narrative.
POV: You made the decision to use music as a dramatic device in the film. Tell us about how this came about.
Flynn: I approached the musical score with the idea that music plays a fundamental part in the audience’s experience of film — which is after all a multi-sensory experience. Music has to capture just the right emotional note — to be just subtle enough at times, and at other times to deepen the impact of a scene. One of the biggest challenges in this film was coming up with a score that moved gracefully from Guatemala to Iowa and back again, and yet was authentic to each. I think that Todd Boekelheide’s score accomplished all those things.
Todd Boekelheide, composer: The musical elements for this film came together almost magically. During the editing of the film, director Patricia Flynn and editor Jennifer Chinlund had been using temporary music for the Guatemala scenes from a CD they had discovered. It was a recording of music composed and arranged by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) which was based on Aztec rhythms and words inspired by the 16th-century phenomenon known as the Virgin of Guadalupe. The overall character of the music suggested a very promising direction for the score.
In searching for lyrics for the vocal music, I consulted co-producer Mary Jo McConahay, who gave me a few of her favorite poems from Guatemala. I picked “Cerro de los Muertos”, by Humberto Ak’abal, which seemed perfect for the film. In setting the poem to music, I began to feel that SAVAE would be the best musical group to do the score justice. I contacted SAVAE’s musical director, Christopher Moroney, and before I knew it I was on a plane to San Antonio, where I met the other 6 members of the group. We embarked on a 4 day marathon in the studio, surrounded by all manner of drums, shakers, flutes and ocarinas, resulting in the beautiful recordings used in the film. Once back home, I added marimba, guitar and fiddle for the final touches.