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Geneva Anderson digs into art

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.  

Filmmaker Pamela Yates whose documentary “Granito” helped bring the Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt to court and ensure that he will be held accountable for his crimes against the Guatemalan people some 30 years ago. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images North America

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 GranitoTo 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.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SFIFF Review: “The Reckoning” Pamela Yates’ extraordinary documentary on the ICC and war crimes prosecution…prepare to be stirred, shaken

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

Emotions ran high at Monday’s West Coast premiere of  Pamela Yates’ new film “The Reckoning, ” a compelling overview of the first six years of the ICC, International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international court for prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide.  The documentary film, a contender for the coveted $15,000 Golden Gate Gate award announced this Wednesday, is one of two important films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7,  that explore genocide and efforts to restore justice.  Through accounts offered by victims, ICC lawyers, advocates and an active opponent of the ICC, director Pamela Yates has created a compelling and often heartening account of the pursuit of justice and its effects, both direct and indirect, on murderers (frequently in positions of leadership) who formerly believed they could act with impunity.

The ICC came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, came into force and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. The court’s official seat is in The Hague, The Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.  “The Reckoning” explores the history of the court’s establishment and follows ICC Argentinean prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team of prosecutors, for three years across four continents as investigate and pursue Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, track down Congolese warlords, pressure the U.N Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, for the Darfur massacres and pressure the Columbian government to prosecute those at the highest ranks responsible for brutal systematic killings that occurred in Columbia.  Ocampo rose to public attention in 1985, as Assistant Prosecutor in the Argentina’s “Trial of the Juntas“—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that senior military commanders were prosecuted for mass killings.

Watching the film is both an education and an emotional catharsis: we are sickened by the graphic footage of atrocities we have read about.  Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung and Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda are particularly persuasive as they explain their backgrounds and commitment to prosecuting the top criminals who have so far gotten away with horrific crimes against humanity.  As we follow Ocampo’s team along narrow paths to killing fields in four continents, we are taken aback by the contrast–lush fertile landscapes that upon closer inspection are laden with skulls, human bones, and teeth.  The survivors, often women, who were left for dead, and who have agreed to testify, talk about surviving brutal beatings, rape and the systematic murder of their families and neighbors, often by conscripted child soldiers.  We are sickened further by the frank descriptions of massacre given by former conscripted killers, abducted as young children and trained to kill.  The common thread in all these killings—to obliterate by the swiftest means possible.   We are also sickened that the U.S., which was instrumental in setting up the fundamental building blocks of the court, pulled back under the Bush Administration and refused to become a signatory.  We listen as renowned American lawyer and diplomat David Scheffer who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, during President Bill Clinton’s second term lays out the arguments in favor of U.S. participation and multilaterism in this important endeavor.   His explanation resonates at a very deep level with the principles of justice, leadership through example and intolerance for impunity honored by most Americans.  Scheffer led the U.S. negotiating team in the United Nations talks on the ICC and while he signed the Rome Statute hat established the ICC on behalf of the U.S. in 2000, he was critical of many aspects of the court and the negotiation process itself.  He particularly opposed the prohibition on any party making reservations to the Rome Statute and the manner in which the Statute structured the court’s jurisdiction.

If Yates’ film can be faulted, it is in this important segment which is not thorough enough in laying out the multilateral approach endorsed by Scheffer versus the unilateral course of the Bush Administration.  John Bolton,  Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is captured reading from his famous 2003 memo rejecting US participation and later in inflammatory bluster and the meat of the argument against U.S. membership takes a backseat to our immediate distaste for Bolton’s combative style.   The main argument that the U.S. has made against joining the ICC is that as the world’s superpower, it is frequently called upon and expected to take on a dominant policing role which puts it in a high liability situation.  The ICC would put the tiniest players on the world stage–Benin or Trinidad and Tobago– on an equal footing with the United States and the U.S. has feared that could lead to unfounded accusations against U.S. soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in difficult situations.  What global leader would agree to take on such high policing responsibility if the liability isn’t commensurate with the addition responsibility?  China, Russia, India have also refused to sign.  But Washington has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, it has also used its political and economic leverage to undermine the ICC by demanding that states sign bilateral agreements pledging not to subject American citizens to the court.  Those who refuse could be denied U.S. military or other aid.  Scheffer argues persuasively that the court is structured adequately to prohibit such occurrances and if the U.S. were to engage in illegal activities, it should be taken to task.  Moreover,  America needs to align itself again with international law to restore our credibility as a global power.  

IF the ultimate point of this excellent film is to convince us that the US needs to join, Yates has done her job; but if Yates is striving to change the mind of those in power, she has a ways to go.  Fortunately the film is an entre to a 3 year International Justice program IJcentral http://ijcentral.org/initiated by Yates to involve citizens in safeguarding international justice.  Framing a story as complex as this is daunting. Yates’ ultimate message seems to be that despite US objections, the ICC has done and will continue to do important work.   A truly international court though needs the approval and backing of the world’s most powerful states.  What are the circumstances that might bring the U.S. and other powers  into the fold?

As of March 2009, 108 states are members of the ICC.  A further 40 countries have signed but not retified the Rome Statute.  The ICC can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United nations security Council.  The ICC is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.  The main responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is left to the individual states.

“The Reckoning” screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm at PFA, Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

52nd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7, 2009

sfiff52-lower-qIt’s film festival season again and nothing beats the San Francisco International Film Festival, which offers an exceptional program of global cinema—151 films from 55 countries in 34 languages with 54 West Coast, 9 North American, and 1 global premiere.  Fortunately, a number of angels stepped up with generous financial sponsorship so the economic crisis would not impact this year’s 15 day festival which draws over 75,000 people.  I am especially attached to SFIFF because the programming is wonderfully diverse offering narrative features, feature documentaries, works from new directors, and shorts from all over the world that can loosely be divided into over 20 causes- the arts, environment, health, family issues, world culture, war, youth, and Cinema by the Bay (locals).  All screenings include engaging Q&A with the directors, actors, and film crews. The festival takes place in San Francisco (Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Castro Theatre, and Landmark’s Clay Theatre) and Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive).  Most of these films sell out, so buy your tickets in advance.

Here are my must-see flics, biased by my heavy interest in global politics, environmental concerns and penetrating storytelling.  I will be posting full reviews of several of these films in coming days.

 “A Sea Change”: Dir. Barbara Ettinger (USA 2009, 84 min)   Did you happen to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s penetrating article “The Darkening Sea” in the New Yorker? (PDF) Norwegian grandfather Sven Huseby and his wife, director Barbara Ettinger were so impacted by Kolbert’s findings that they spent two years traveling all over the world and documenting the scientific impact of ocean acidification on sea life.  The urgent and accessible message delivered by Huseby is that we have reached a turning point: CO2 is acidifying our oceans and this is going to dramatically alter life on our plant for coming generations.  Ocean acidification is the flip side of global warming and if you have children, grandchildren or any investment in life as we know it continuing on this planet, this is a must-see film.  This is our generation’s legacy and we need to both inform and change things now.  Screens: Sat April 25, 3:45 pm, Mon April 27, 6:15 pm, Thurs April 30, 1:30 pm, all at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

A special forum “Ocean Acidification: Imagining a World Without Fish” will take place Saturday April 25, 5:45 pm, following the screening with several of the experts featured in the film present to discuss the latest findings.

“The Reckoning”: Dir. Pamela Yates (USA, 2008, 95 min)  The ICC (International Criminal Court) was set-up by 108 countries in response to repeated crimes against humanity.  This riveting documentary sheds light on this important permanent international tribunal that has been established to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide regardless of their power or influence and to punish them.  The film is the story of the ICC’s first six tumultuous years: it follows the dynamic ICC prosecutor Luis Ocampo for three years, across 4 continents as his team doggedly pursues Lord’s resistance Army leaders in Uganda, tries Congolese war lords, presses the U.N. Security Council to indict Sudan’s president for the Darfur massacres, and tackles Columbian criminals…the film is spoken in 6 languages.  The film will inspire and inform…no matter how painful, coming to terms with painful history is the best way for our civilization to heal and move forward.  Screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm, at PFA and Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

“Speaking in Tongues”: Dir. Marcia Jamel, Ken Schneider (USA 2009, 60 min)   Is America’s commitment to remaining an “English-only” nation a wise course in an increasingly interconnected world?   So far, thirty-one states have voted to make English their official language and even in liberal Palo Alto, a Mandarin language immersion program was viewed as extremely controversial and nearly stopped.  “Speaking in Tongues” explores bilingual language immersion through the compelling stories of four San Francisco public schoolchildren enrolled in Chinese and Spanish language-immersion programs.  The children enter immersion programs for different reasons and while they grow impressively at ease with the portal language offers, becoming impressive global citizens and much better students, their parents argue.  Screens: Sun April 26, 3:15 pm, Sat May 2, 11;45 am and 3:30 pm, Thurs, May 7, 2:30 pm, all at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

“Oblivion”: Dir. Heddy Honigmann (Netherlands, 2008, 93 min)   Set in the forgotten city of Lima, Peru, we meet some of the city’s residents, real characters, who use poetry, escapism, humor and creativity to battle “el olvido” oblivion, that results from being the disempowered citizens of an impoverished country that has been largely forgotten by the modern world.  Filmmaker Heddy Honigmann who received the SFIFF 2007 Persistence of Vision Award was born in Peru and returns to this forsaken country to explore its dispossessed citizens, capturing them in their victory as well as despair but never ever defeat.   The wisdom and sage humor in this film directed against its politicians and life itself makes it well worth seeing.  Screens: Sat April 25, 4:15 pm at PFA, Sun April 26, 6:30 pm, Tuesday April 28, 12:30 pm and 3:15 pm, all at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

“The Other One”: Dir. Patrick Mario Bernard, Pierre Trividic (France 2008, 97 min)     Forty-seven year-old social worker Anne-Marie is newly single after an amicable break with her (much) younger lover, Alex, whom she encouraged to find someone more appropriate for the long-term.  He takes her advice but her replacement turns out to be another older professional woman rather than the gorgeous creative model-type that Anne-Marie imagined he should be with.  What starts off as mild curiosity about the other woman morphs into out of control jealousy and a meltdown.  Screens: Friday May 1, 4:15 pm, Sun May 3, 9:30 pm, Wed May 6, 6:00 pm, all at the Clay Theatre.

Each year the festival asks a culturally prominent public figure to address pressing issues in contemporary cinema.  Mary Ellen Mark, voted by the readers of American Photo as the most influential woman photographer of all time, will deliver the 2009 State of Cinema address on Sunday May 3, 3 pm, at the Sundance Kabuki Theatres, giving a tour of her film-set images and discussing the legendary figures in her famous frames as well.  She will also show us her photo essay “Twins.”

SFIFF52 tickets:  available at www.sffs.org , or by phone (925) 866-9559 or in person at the main ticket outlet, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.  Price $12.50 general public.

April 11, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment