Pamela Yates' documentary Granito in the quest for justice for Guatemala genocide

Filmmaker Pamela Yates was in town to present her latest film Granito: How to nail a Dictator (Jury Award prize at Politics in Film Fest) at the Vancouver International Film Festival .

In 1982, Yates filmed When the Mountains Tremble which exposes the killing of Mayan people by  U.S.-funded Guatemalan military while fighting the guerrilla. 

Twenty five years later, a lawyer working to bring  the genocide case to the Spanish National Court (previously brought by Guatemalan Peace Nobel Prize, Rigoberta Menchu) asks Yates to dig in her film outtakes to look for evidence that could help to bring the accused to justice.

Granito follows a group of people uniting forces, each bringing their own granito (grain of sand) in quest for justice for  the 200,000 fallen during the massacres.

Yates said that the  lawyer approached her after the screening of Mountains at the Guatemala’s University of San Carlos --the first public showing in 20 years since its release. 

The movie that has been “clandestinely shown" is now  available everywhere. She said that two of the accused who appeared in the film, including ex-Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt, have been issued arrest warrants by the Spanish National Court.

 “I began this archaeological dig through 25 year-old footage to find material especially interview with generals that I've done in 1982 and what I found was outstanding evidence of guilt,” Yates told the Vancouver Observer.

At first, Yates believed that the film was going to be all about the court case and the accused military were going to trial and even to prison.

However, it wasn't that way, so Yates divided it in three parts: first, about the killings, second on the case, and the third about the Guatemalan people.  

“I realized actually a much richer film could be made with the Guatemalans who were very creatively trying to change  their own country," she said.

Yates’ motivation to film Guatemala in the midst of the Civil War was driven by a frustration she felt for the government of United States being on “the wrong side of history” is still present with  U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 “The concept of intervention, which is one of the things that prompted me to make When the Mountains Tremble continues, and in Granito I try to say [about] the capability of the United States to use not only the monetary  dictatorship to power, but in training and funding --that kind of counter insurgency program that led to the genocide of Guatemala.”

 “The thing is the Americans’ idea of the genocide was (also) the Guatemalan military’s idea," Yates noted.

She said that something else that makes the U.S complicit is that they knew "when the genocide started and was being carried out."

"We know, because of the declassified cables from the embassy [and] from the State Department and they did not act and the United States had the power to act and President Reagan even defended Rios Montt by saying that  the international community was giving him a ‘bum rap’" Yates said.

For Yates, her country has a burden to bear regarding the genocide in Guatemala. Rather than feeling guilty, she takes action by committing these historical accounts to film.

“I don’t want these things to be done in my name," she said.

"I am a documentary filmmaker, a human rights filmmaker and this is how I am active as a citizen.”

When I asked if U.S. officials who endorsed these crimes could be brought to trial, she said:

"There has to be direct evidence  and all I can say about that it's there are people looking for that evidence," she said.

Yates explains that there has been an important shift in the justice system in  Guatemala and things are rapidly evolving since a new attorney general was appointed.

“In the last three months, more people have been arrested and convicted of crimes from the 1980s than in the previous 30 years,” Yates said.

As one example, the former Army Chief Staff of ex-President Rios Montt, Hector Mario Lopez, was  arrested in June and charged with genocide in Guatemala and other three special forces officers and an Army Lieutenant were convicted for the  1982's massacre of 201 people in the town of Dos Erres given each 6060- year prison sentence --30 years for each victim.

“I think that is a tipping point for justice in Guatemala and I hope that Granito can be part of that and a contributor for that tipping point for justice,” she adds.

 “We have to believe that things can change and it's not easy to be optimistic because we suffer a lot of defeats. But sometimes we have victories like with Fujimori or Pinochet and I think ultimately with Rios Montt and many of the perpetrators in Guatemala now.”

The genocide has been a taboo topic for decades in part for fear, but new generations and thirsty to know more about it. Yates reveals that younger people in Guatemala are not taught in school about it and have little knowledge of these evesnts.

Hence, Yates and her team have created Granito: Every Memory Matters, a databank for the younger generation to interact with  the older generation “and in that way to learn about their own history.” The movie will also be screened in Guatemala in February.

Yates’s next project is called "Memory Escape,” which shows how societies decide  what to remember and what to forget.

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