PBS Premiere: June 28, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement


For me, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is a second chance to help right a terrible wrong.

I first went to Guatemala in 1982, to make a film about a hidden war, a film that would become my first feature-length documentary, "When the Mountains Tremble." We now know that hidden in that war was a genocide the Guatemalan military dictators committed against the Mayan people. None of these war criminals have ever been brought to account, none punished. The anger I feel toward those generals is almost unbearable. Today, more than 25 years later, "When the Mountains Tremble" and its outtakes are being used as forensic evidence in an international case against two of the generals who appeared in my original film.

Digging through the outtakes and preparing evidence for the court case made me realize that a story I had thought was over was very much alive and needed to be told. This sequel to "When the Mountains Tremble" would be called Granito, Spanish for tiny grain of sand. The title reflects the communal values that guide Mayan communities and means that each of us can make a small contribution to positive social change, and together we can make great changes in favor of equality and human rights. It is a concept I first learned in the Guatemalan highlands and have carried with me throughout my filmmaking life.

As fate would have it, the central character in "When the Mountains Tremble" was a 22-year-old Mayan human rights defender named Rigoberta Menchú whose family members had been killed. She'd fled into exile. Ten years later, she became the first indigenous woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Leveraging her stature as a Nobel laureate, Rigoberta originated the case against the generals that breathed new life into the quest for justice, and inspired the new film Granito.

As filming began on Granito, I was surprised to discover that Guatemalans had never given up on finding justice and uncovering the collective memory of their buried past. I wanted to find a way to highlight the courage of these empowered individuals. This sentiment is at the heart of Granito, and it has made it a hopeful and transformative film.

But for me, this new film held a deeper filmmaking challenge. After three decades of involvement with Guatemala, I had become a character in the story I needed to tell. This forced me to examine the feelings and beliefs I held back when I started. I had to find a way to use the narrative power of documentary filmmaking to combine the beauty with the anger: the beauty of youthful idealism — mine as well as the Guatemalan revolutionary movement's — and the anger I now feel toward the war criminals who continue to flaunt their impunity.

I realize that the collective concept of Granito has permeated my filmmaking life, a journey I have traveled with Peter Kinoy, my fellow filmmaker and co-founder of Skylight Pictures. Peter was the producer and editor of "When the Mountains Tremble" and is the editor of Granito. Together, we've developed our approach to political documentary storytelling, embracing the techniques of cinematography, scoring and editing used by narrative filmmakers to evoke drama and urgency.

Although Granito is rooted in the past — how I got started, the choices I made along the way and how what I thought I was doing back then has a different meaning today — it is really a film about the future. Granito is meant to inspire the next generation of young, engaged filmmakers to see and embrace the power of documentary filmmaking to make a difference.

— Pamela Yates, Director