Film Does Make a Difference: Guatemalan Dictator is Nailed After 30 Years and Pamela Yates’ “Granito” was a decisive factor
Exactly one year after the release of Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis’ film Granito: How To Nail A Dictator at the Sundance Film Festival, General Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto President and ex-dictator of Guatemala, was brought up on charges of genocide in a Guatemalan court and placed under house arrest last Thursday. Granito was one of the important documentaries screened at October’s 34th Mill Valley Film Festival. In the past year, Granito was honored in several ways. It was the Opening Night Film at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York and it went on to screen at over 50 film festivals around the globe─from Amman to Auckland, Paris to Havana, São Paulo to Vancouver, New York to Moscow, and Geneva to Lima. In screening after screening, audiences connected to the theme of the power of collective change espoused in Granito, resonating with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.
I met and interviewed Yates in 2009 when her documentary The Reckoning, which addressed the future of the ICC (International Criminal Court) and its war crimes prosecution efforts, screened at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival. Yates, now in her fifties, found her passion for intrepid reporting right after she graduated from college. She has produced several important films on human rights issues and the quest for justice including When the Mountains Tremble (1984). Shot thirty years ago, at the peak of Ríos Montt’s despotism, the film is one of the only documentary records of Guatemala’s brutal civil war and captures the chaos from the vantage point of both the U.S.-backed military leaders and the indigenous peasant revolutionaries trying to unseat them who were systematically killed in a scorched earth campaign. Yates observed first hand that a few top generals, notably Efraín Ríos Montt and Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García, were behind that slaughter of an estimated 200,000 Mayan and the disappearance of another 40,000 indigenous persons and Ms. Yates interviewed these leaders in 1982.
Granito tells the story of how some 25 years later, Yates was asked to join a team of forensic experts and lawyers and Mayan survivors in a human rights case against Guatemala’s former juntas and how her first film footage became the evidence that led to the indictment of Montt in Spain’s national courts for his attacks on Maya. (This is the same Spanish court that indicted Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations war in October 1998.) The powerful film uses the connected stories of eight people─they are the “granito,” or tiny pieces of sand─whose destinies all collide around that distant Guatemalan war, to weave an epic tale of justice. The film also chronicles Yates herself, who has had a remarkable impact as a filmmaker, and looks back on one of her earliest reporting experiences. It shows her in remote mountain areas of Guatemala in 1982 attending meetings with the guerilla revolutionaries and recording stories of mass murder and forging connections with survivors who later became activists. She takes a big risk and boards a plane with high-ranking Guatemalan military officers and shoots a fly-over at a remote village they had decimated just days earlier….vital footage which became integral years later in the making of Granito.
Emerging out of the historical footage are the remarkable stories of the granitos. One of these is Fredy Pecerelli, Director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which since the mid-1990s has led efforts to exhume the mass graves of victims of Guatemala’s civil war. Pecerelli’s father was a law student in the early 1980′s and packed up his family and left for New York after receiving death threats from the Guatemalan death squads in the capital, Guatemala City. Pecerelli now devotes his full time to exhuming corpses and corroborating the brutal massacres that occurred.
“Granito’s release added its ‘grain of sand’ to the tipping point for justice reached in Guatemala this year,” said Yates, “where more perpetrators of the genocide against the Maya people have been arrested, tried and convicted than in the previous 30 years since we released When the Mountains Tremble.”
Many of us were hopeful that Granito would be shortlisted for the Oscar documentary nomination and that, in front of a captive audience of some 40 million viewers, the message of collective change that Granito embodies could be conveyed─but it was not selected. How gratifying it is to see that, in the real world, this film has served its purpose─nailing a dictator─and will live on to educate about the abuses of power.
Ríos Montt’s Trial in Guatemala utilizes Granito: The culmination of three decades of work by human rights advocates, forensic scientists and survivors of the Guatemalan genocide forced former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt to appear in court last Thursday after 30 years of impunity, for a hearing (that ran 11 hours) to decide whether there was enough evidence to take him to trial on charges of genocide. This was a major event in Guatemala with hundreds of Maya people coming down from the highlands to gather in front of the courthouse, holding a candle vigil for the their murdered family members. Ríos Montt is the first high-ranking Guatemalan official to be brought to trial. (Read The Guatemala Times coverage here.) (Read the New York Times coverage here.)
The prosecution spent hours presenting overwhelming evidence in the form of military documents, exhumation reports, photos and footage from Yates’ film Granito: How To Nail A Dictator, which links Ríos Montt directly to hundreds of deaths and disappearances. Surviving family members, Ixil Maya in traditional dress, crowded the standing room only courtroom in stunned silence. Some wept. Outside the courthouse, in an open area now named Human Rights Plaza, hundreds more watched the proceedings on a huge screen.
The defense argued that Ríos Montt did not have command responsibility over his Army officers in the highlands, and that he was not responsible for the massacres. This is negated by a clip from Granito that the prosecution and the Guatemalan media used to show the general taking command responsibility, saying that “If I don’t control the army, then who does?”
Judge Carol Patricia Flores deliberated for hours and returned her decision to prosecute Ríos Montt on charges of genocide, place him under house arrest, and set bail for USD $65,000. People hugged, cheered and set off firecrackers outside when the Judge read her decision stating that “the extermination of the civilian population was the result of military plans, and that these plans were executed under the command of Ríos Montt.”
More on Ríos Montt: During the 17 months of Mr. Ríos Montt’s rule in 1982 and 1983, the military carried out a scorched-earth campaign in the Mayan highlands as soldiers hunted down bands of leftist guerrillas. Survivors have described how military units wiped out Indian villages with extraordinary brutality, killing all the women and children along with the men. Military documents of the time described the Indians as rebel collaborators.
A truth commission backed by the United Nations, set up after a peace accord in 1996, found that 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the civil war, mostly by state security forces. The violence against Mayan-Ixil villages amounted to genocide because the entire population was targeted, the commission concluded.
The military’s actions against those communities were at the forefront of the allegations at Thursday’s hearing, as the prosecution outlined 72 separate episodes that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,771 people.
Get Involved with Granito: To reinforce and educate about the power of the collective to make a difference, Yates and de Onis have launched a companion digital project designed to restore the collective memory of the genocide in a public online archive, described here – Granito: Every Memory Matters. The film’s journey is reflected in the Granito Facebook page, where nearly 4,000 followers have rallied, sharing stories, news, and demanding justice. And to get a sense of the people behind all of this, check out this slide show of photos of ‘granitos’ by renowned portraitist Dana Lixenberg.
In the world of film and film festivals, each season has its delights. While there may be as many as a dozen mini-fests set to launch in the Bay Area, October always belongs to the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF). Now 34 and considered in the top lists of festivals worldwide, its organizers and programmers —Mark Fishkin, Zoë Elton, Janis Plotkin (to name a few)—have hit on a winning formula. The 11 day festival will present some 120 films that include Academy Award hopefuls, tributes, emerging talents, documentaries, children’s programming, and world cinema. MVFF34 all takes place north of the Golden Gate at CinéArts@Sequoia, Mill Valley, and Christopher B, Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, and other convenient Marin locales.
Singing the Praises of WOMEN—actresses, directors, thematically
“When we looked at what seemed strong, it became quite apparent at Cannes that there was an incredible wealth of excellent performances by women,” said Zoë Elton at the festival’s September press conference. “We have a lot of these Oscar worthy women in the festival.” The lineup includes films featuring Glenn Close, Michelle Yeoh, Tilda Swinton, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Barkin, Michelle Williams and emerging actresses like Elizabeth Olsen and Antonia Campbell-Hughes. Ironically, one of the two opening night films, Albert Nobbs, is a gender-bender drama starring Glenn Close as a woman who has skirted poverty in mid-19th Century Dublin by dressing and working as a man—a shy butler. Close, well-known for her performances in films such as Fatal Attractions (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988) is attending the festival and is the subject of a special Tribute event on festival’s second night.
The programming also reflects a strong interest in the portrayal of women in various cultures. A number of films weave mythology and ritual with the complex contemporary reality of women’s lives. Moroccan director Mohamed Mouftakir won the Golden Stallion (top prize) at this year’s FESPACO (2011) for Pegasus, the story of a young Moroccan woman (Sadia Ladib) who is found on the streets, wounded and with no memories of her past–but with visions, flashbacks, evidence of trauma, and the belief that she has been impregnated by “The Lord of the Horse.” The fragmented plotline which echoes David Lynch and Iranian director Mohammad Rasolof (The White Meadows, 2009), weaves her journey to self with the experiences of her therapist, Dr. Zineb, who is treating her and on her own psychic quest. (Screens Friday and Sunday)
SEPCIAL DAYS: OPENING NIGHT
The festival opens Thursday evening with two films that are sure bets to be included among the top independent releases of 2011. Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close, who will attend, will be screened at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center at 7 p.m. Jeff Who Lives at Home will have its U.S. premiere at CinéArts@Sequoia in Mill Valley at 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. This film, which won’t hit the theatres until March 2012, stars Jason Segal and Ed Helms with Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer. It is the story of Jeff, a sympathetic 30-year old unemployed pot head who lives in his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) basement and rewatches Signs while nurturing anxiety about clues the universe is dropping about his destiny. The story all transpires over an afternoon of misadventures culminating in a fate-directed universe rattling ah-hah moment. Directors Jay and Mark Duplass will also be in attendance. After the screenings, the Opening Night Gala kicks off at the Mill Valley Community Center at 9 p.m. and goes until midnight.
Closing Night will feature a special screening of The Artist starring Jean Dujardin (Cannes Best Actor), Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Missi Pyle. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius, who is expected to be in attendance, The Artist is an endearing black and white homage to the world of silent film that tells the story of a silent-film star resisting the transition to sound set in 1927 Hollywood. Just as his star wanes, another’s starlet’s rises who represents Hollywood’s new direction. After the film, the Closing Night Party will take place at Albert Park/San Rafael Community Center from 7-10 p.m.
TRIBUTE AND SPOTLIGHT EVENTS
In addition to honoring Glenn Close’s career, MVFF34 is celebrating actress Michelle Yeoh and West African director Gaston Kaboré. On Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. a Spotlight honoring Michelle Yeoh, one of Asia’s best known actresses, will take place at the Smith Rafael Film Center with a Q&A and screening of her new film, The Lady, already generating quite an Oscar buzz. The Lady is an intimate chronicle of the life of Myanmar prodemocracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who spent 15 years under house arrest before her release last year. The Lady follows Suu Kyi starting in 1988 when she returned to Myanmar, formerly Burma, to care for her ailing mother and soon became iconic in the battle against the military dictatorship. The story focuses on her family life–her marriage to British academic Michael Aris and their two sons. Aris, an Oxford professor, strongly supported Suu Kyi’s decision to stay in Myanmar, raising their children and playing a pivotal role behind the scenes in campaigning for her Nobel Peace Prize. This decision, for the greater good, entailed years of separation and was a tremendous burden yet it was mutually agreed upon and seemed to cement their courageous love. Yeoh attends MVFF with Luc Besson, the film’s internationally acclaimed director and producer. (click here to watch trailer) After the program, the evening will continue with dinner at Frantoio Ristorante & Olive Oil Company in Mill Valley.
The first weekend of the Festival culminates on Sunday, October 9 at 4:30 p.m., with an MVFF Tribute to West African director Gaston Kaboré, honoring his remarkable career and contribution to African film including an onstage conversation and rare screening of his 1982 classic Wend Kuuni (God’s Gift), the endearing story of a mute boy found in the bush and adopted by Mossi villagers whose love and tenderness help restore his voice. Afterwards, the evening continues with dinner at Acqua Mill Valley, catered by Delicious! Catering.
ARThound’s top five:
Coriolanus: Actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s war tragedy “Coriolanus” set in war-torn Bosnia with chilling urban battle scenes. Fiennes also stars as Caius Martius, or Coriolanus, a powerful general at odds with the City of Rome, a role that Fiennes played on the London stage. Coriolanus is a riveting drama about the relationship of authority, power, and the emotions that drive them and should play well reconfigured in the hotbed of the Balkans. Martius meets his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (a very macho Gerard Butler) on the battlefield and returns to Rome as a hero. Reveling in his triumph, he is elected to the governing consul but is soon opposed by the citizenry. His anger at the public’s disfavor leads to his expulsion, and in desperation he turns to his sworn enemy Tullus, with whom he takes revenge on the city. Vanessa Redgrave is Coriolanus’s iron-willed mother and Jessica Chastain is his trophy wife. Directed by Ralph Fiennes (UK, 2011) (122 minutes). Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 9 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley and Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator: Documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates has passionately been involved in investigating genocide and war crimes for over 25 years. Her 1984 film, When the Mountains Tremble, made when she was just out of college, is one of the only documentary records of the brutal Guatemalan civil war between the U.S.-backed military junta and the indigenous peasant revolutionaries who were systematically killed in a scorched earth campaign. A few top generals, notably Efraín Ríos Montt and Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García, were behind that slaughter of an estimated 200,000 Mayan and the disappearance of another 40,000 indigenous persons and Ms. Yates interviewed these leaders in 1982. Granito tells the story of how some 25 years later, Yates was asked to join a team of forensic experts and lawyers and Mayan survivors in a human rights case against Guatemala’s former juntas and how her first film footage became the evidence that led to the indictment of Montt in Spain’s national courts for his attacks on Maya. The powerful and idealistic film uses the connected stories of five people─they are the “granito,” or tiny pieces of sand─whose destinies all collide around that distant Guatemalan war, to weave an epic tale of justice. Though somewhat narrowly focused, the film is monumental. It is also an inspirational look at the career of a brave filmmaker who has dedicated every ounce of her being to seeing that justice is served. (US, 2011, 104 min) Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA and Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 5:45 p.m. at the Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley. Directors Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis will be present at both screening and will conduct a post-film discussion and Q & A. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org
The Butcher’s Wife: North American Premiere (China, 2011, 119 min)(Mandarin with English subtitles) Epic in scale, this new drama tells the intimate story of a newly-married young couple in rural China facing big life decisions against the gripping backdrop of modernization that threatens to leave all but urban dwellers behind. Months have passed and Liang, a kind and simple butcher, and his wife Qiao have not consummated their marriage because she fears pregnancy will squash her dream of entering college and starting a new life in the city. She’s already failed the exam three times and feels intense pressure to start the life she imagines she will have. Lang can’t bear the situation and wants intimacy and, humiliated, sends his wife to stay with her mother. Qiao leaves for the big city to get her dream underway and it quickly turns into a nightmare. The fictional film, a parable for any rapidly modernizing society, draws us into the hard and fractured lives of a young couple, both unfulfilled and both with reasonable expectations, for which there seems to be no easy answer. Through its intimate portrayal of the aspirations and anguish of two individuals, the film asks us to consider what really matters most in this life and what it means when achieving that is not possible. (contains graphic images of pig slaughter) Directed by Gao Xiongjie. (China, 2011, 119 min)(Mandarin with English subtitles) Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA and Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 3:45 p.m. at the Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org
The Prize: Argentinean Paula Markovitch’s impressive autobiographical feature debut is about vivacious 7 year-old Cecilia, (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) who is asked to keep a big secret about her family but can’t possibly understand the implications of that secret. It’s the 1970’s and Ceci and her mom are living out of suitcases at a desolate and ramshackle abandoned beach town, hiding from Argentina’s repressive military and what will come to be called its “dirty war.” If asked, Ceci is instructed to tell people only that her mom is a housekeeper and her dad sells curtains. Ceci soons befriends her schoolmate, Lucia, but it becomes very difficult for her to particpate in activities like writing a school essay about her family and, when she does, she comes close to jeopardizing everything. Paula Galinelli Hertzog delivers an astounding performance as a young girl trying to understand what she can believe in the adult world and struggling to feel secure in the certitude of her mother’s love when everything else seems to be shifting. (Mexico/Germany/France/Poland, 2011) (103 minutes) In Spanish with English subtitles. Screens: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA and Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 5:45 p.m. at the Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org
The Forgiveness of Blood: A mesmerizing drama from Justin Marston, the producer of Maria Full of Grace (2004) shot entirely on location in rural Albania that explores that small Balkan country’s insular clan culture through the story of a teenage boy and his sister. When Mark (Refet Abazi) gets embroiled in a land rights squabble that escalates to his killing his neighbor, legal justice takes a backseat to Balkan oral code of the Kanun. This traditional Albanian law, pre-dating the 15th century, states that when a murder is committed, the family of the deceased are warranted to get retribution by taking the life of a male in the offending clan’s family. Mark goes into hiding but his 17 year-old son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), is essentially doomed to indefinite confinement at home, the only place considered safe ground. Nic leaves his high school life of video games and flirting and becomes a volatile and stir-crazy prisoner at home while his resourceful 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), takes over her family’s bread delivery business but is soon knee deep in threats herself. As Nic feels increasing pressure to find a solution to this blood feud, his actions escalate such that his entire family is jeopardized. In Albanian with English subtitles, the film boldly contrasts the resurgence of antiquated traditions with the lives of young people in the country’s first post-totalitarian generation, whose bright future is put at risk by these practices. Directed by Joshua Marston (2011) (109 minutes) Screens: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4 p.m. and Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 12:15 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org
Details: Presented by the California Film Institute, the 34th Mill Valley Film Festival runs October 6-16, 2011 at the CinéArts@Sequoia (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley), Chrisopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael) and other venues. Tickets are $13.50 (CFI Members, $11), unless otherwise noted, and may be purchased online at mvff.com. Additional information: www.mvff.com or call 877.874.6833