Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

Granito is director Pamela Yates’ attempt to spread the gospel of collective action she learned while making her debut documentary, 1983’s When the Mountains Tremble.

Both films are about the war waged by Guatemala’s government against its own people in the early ‘80s, a ruthless campaign that resulted in the deaths (often by torture) of an estimated 200,000 indigenous Mayans and political activists. The strength of the first flowed from the impressive access Yates got to both sides of the conflict, and from the charisma of gravely eloquent young Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché woman whose personal testimony and historical analysis put the killing in context. Yates bivouacked with guerillas, interviewing shy teenage recruits and their not-much-older commander/comrades. She recorded hundreds of their rural supporters as they emerged into a clearing as if from the mountain itself, filling the field for a few minutes before melting back into the woods. And she gained the trust of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the main officer in charge of the campaign, capturing chilling footage and quotes as she interviewed him or rode shotgun in trucks and helicopters with his soldiers.

Granito begins about a quarter century later, as Yates pores over outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble in search of evidence for Almudena Bernabeu, an international human rights lawyer who is trying to convince a judge in Spain to convict Ríos Montt and other former generals of genocide. (Guatemala refuses to put the general on trial.) Yates works hard to organize her material, structuring it like a detective story (Will Yates find the footage Bernabeu needs in her outtakes? What’s that crucial document someone else just stumbled across? Will they be able to find hard evidence, or will the judge dismiss the case?), personalizing it with a voiceover, and dividing it into three chapters.

The third chapter, Grains of Sand, elaborates on the collective philosophy that is the movie’s real subject. Granito de arena is a saying the guerillas adopted to describe the slow accumulation of effort that gradually brings about change as each individual makes a small but crucial contribution to a communal effort. It’s a humble philosophy, Menchú notes, since everyone is equally important and “there are no heroes.”

It’s also an effective way to keep a broad-based movement going for the years, even generations, that are clearly required if the Guatemalan activists are ever to get the delayed justice they want, as they are pushed back a step for every step they take forward. (A new setback too recent to be mentioned in the film is currently making headlines: Mexican drug cartels have made life so dangerous in parts of rural Guatemala that some people want to vote the military back into office.)

Unfortunately, Yates muddies her own message the first two chapters. This time around, the only inside track she has is with the other educated professionals who are helping to gather evidence, so she gives that group most of the screentime. Besides the director herself, who is often shown noodling with a projector or gazing moodily at the camera, we see a lot of Bernabeu, the Spanish judge, a Guatemalan forensic anthropologist who moved to the Bronx as a boy, and two more New Yorkers: a forensic archivist and a former journalist.

Some of them seem off-puttingly self-involved at times, like when the journalist says she left Guatemala after realizing that the country hadn’t changed despite all the work she’d done there. But the real problem is simply the nature of the medium: People we see and hear more of are bound to feel more important than the people we see not at all or in passing.

Yate’s detective-story scaffolding provides some structure and suspense, but the real drama is in the interviews, either conducted or captured by Yates, of Guatemalans who are working for change. When the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation matter-of-factly describes the day when 95 people in his small town were massacred, or a young woman whose father was “disappeared” when she was a baby talks about how she dreamed as a child of becoming a butterfly and flying into the dark prisons to find him, tears streaming down her face unheeded, we sense the pain, the strength, and the thirst for justice that motivates them—and, presumably, all their fellow granitos.

Written for The L Magazine

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