The Guatemala Documentary That Shaped a War Crimes Case

Pamela Yates, director of the new film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, and a documentary filmmaker with Skylight Pictures, believes taking a journalistic film about war crimes prosecution to the Academy Awards could help elevate human rights causes in the West.

Many before her have tried to “mainstream” human rights documentaries, but her new film is unique in that it not only documents war crimes, but documents how that original footage is being used in a genocide case against a former head of state.  

When Ms. Yates first traveled with a documentary team to Guatemala in the 1980’s and filmed When the Mountains Tremble, the country was headed into a horrific civil war. Many saw the country as a proxy game board for Cold War adversaries. 

According to Guatemala’s military records from the mid-1980s opened in the trial against former Guatemalan autocrat General Efrain Rios Montt held in Spain, patrols regularly recorded notes about how they systematically burned houses, destroyed crops, captured and killed civilians in the protracted war between the U.S.-backed military government and left guerrillas.

Many of those killed were Mayan indigenous minority civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Some evidence alleges that Montt’s forces even took detained guerrillas and civilians and threw them out of helicopters into the sea to kill them. Every case has gaps, so prosecutors looked at When the Mountains Tremble and its outtakes for more evidence on whether and to what extent the Montt regime may have killed tens of thousands. Ms. Yates then made a film about her film’s unique reemergence. Montt, meanwhile, still serves as a politician in Guatemala.

Granito has already won the Peace and Reconciliation Prize at the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the Paris International Human Rights Film Festival. Could it make it to the Oscars and help increase global attention to human rights documentaries?

Here’s my formal interview with Ms. Yates for the International Center for Transitional Justice. And here’s an even deeper interview with the BBC about the story. You can support her cause here on Kickstarter.

Photo: Cathedral in Guatemala City (Clark & Kim Kays, CC)