In January 2012, after 30 years of legal impunity, former Guatemalan general and dictator Efraín Ríos Montt found himself indicted by a Guatemalan court for crimes against humanity. Against all odds, he was charged with committing genocide in the 1980s against the country’s poor, Mayan people.
In 1982, a young first-time filmmaker, Pamela Yates, used her seeming naiveté to gain unprecedented access to Ríos Montt, his generals and leftist guerrillas waging a clandestine war deep in the mountains. The resulting film, When the Mountains Tremble (1983) revealed that the Guatemalan army was killing Mayan civilians. As Yates notes in her extraordinary follow-up, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, “Guatemala . . . never let me go.” When the Mountains Tremble had re-entered her life 30 years later when a Spanish lawyer investigating the Ríos Montt regime asked for her help. She believed her first film and its outtakes just might contain evidence to bring charges of genocide under international law.
Pamela Yates filming on “When the Mountains Tremble” in the Guatemalan highlands, 1982. The footage from this film is now being used as forensic evidence in the Guatemalan genocide case – the story told in her current film, Granito. Credit: Newton Thomas Sigel and Skylight Pictures.
Granito spans 30 years as seven protagonists in Guatemala, Spain and the United States attempt to bring justice to violence-plagued Guatemala. Among the twists of fate:
- A 22-year-old Mayan woman, Rigoberta Menchú, the storyteller in When the Mountains Tremble, goes on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and then initiates the court case against General Ríos Montt that eventually leads to the use of Yates’ footage as evidence.
- A guerrilla commander, Gustavo Meoño, who authorized Yates’ filming with the insurgents in 1982, becomes a key player in uncovering the mechanisms of disappearances and state terror.
- A young press liaison in Guatemala, Naomi Roht-Arriaza who helped arrange Yates’ filming with the guerrillas in 1982 becomes one of the key international lawyers working on the genocide case.
- The head of the Guatemalan forensic anthropology team, Fredy Peccerelli, unearthing evidence of the vast killings, grew up watching When the Mountains Tremble.
Granito is a film about a film and its remarkable afterlife for a filmmaker, a nation and, most dramatically, as evidence in a long struggle to give a dictator’s victims their day in court. It is an inside, as-it-happens account of the way a new generation of human rights activists operates in a globalized, media-saturated world. Granito shows how multiple efforts–the work of the lawyers, the testimony of survivors, a documentary film, the willingness of a Spanish judge to assert international jurisdiction–each become a granito, a tiny grain of sand, adding up to tip the scales of justice.
Even after Ríos Montt was deposed and a tenuous democracy restored in Guatemala in 1986, he and the generals continued to enjoy wealth, status and participation in politics. In 1999, a U.N.-sponsored truth commission concluded that genocide had been committed by the government, and that same year President Clinton declared that U.S. support for military forces and intelligence units that engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. Even the Guatemalan generals, who claimed that overzealous field commanders were to blame, admitted that crimes had occurred.
Military occupation of the Guatemalan highlands, 1982. The 1998 Truth Commission concluded that successive dictatorships committed genocide against the Maya population. Credit: Jean-Marie Simon.
The story may have ended there except for catalysts demanding change: the growing movement to assert international jurisdiction in cases of human rights abuses, the persistence of activists . . . and the persistence of memory in film. In Yates’ When the Mountains Tremble and its outtakes from 1982, Ríos Montt repeatedly guarantees that atrocities could not be taking place because he is in total command. Yet Yates’ recorded footage of a military-conducted tour, meant to show a legal war against guerrillas, appears to show the result of a mass murder of unarmed civilians.
Fast-forward to the recent years, when lawyers and plaintiffs were seeking an international indictment in Spain, whose National Court has led the way in such cases. This is done only when local courts fail to act, and no one expected much from the Guatemalan judicial system. And then this past January–one year after Granito’s premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival–Ríos Montt was indicted in Guatemala for genocide, in what can only be described as a stunning precedent for that country.
Granito is a complex, generational story of crime and punishment and also a historical thriller whose last chapter is yet to be written. Like its prequel When the Mountains Tremble, Granito could very likely become a part of the historic memory of Guatemala.
A companion transmedia project, Granito: Every Memory Matters (www.granitomem.com) has been created as an online intergenerational, interactive public archive of memories that uncovers the history of the Guatemalan genocide.