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From civil war to civil protest: A director looks back on three decades of filming Guatemala

NANTUCKET, MA - JUNE 24: Pamela Yates attends the "500 Years / Facing History And Ourselves" panel during the 2017 Nantucket Film Festival - Day 4 on June 24, 2017 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Nantucket Film Festival)

MEXICO CITY--Over the past 35 years, Pamela Yates, an American filmmaker, has been visiting Guatemala, documenting the often painful sweep of its history, with particular attention to the indigenous Mayan communities. Her first film, "When the Mountains Tremble" (1983), took viewers inside the small Central American country's ferocious civil war, documenting the U.S.-backed military government's scorched earth campaign as it pursued Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. Yates followed that up nearly 30 years later with "Granito" (2011), about the efforts to prosecute Jose Efrain Rios Montt--the military dictator she had interviewed in her first film when he was president in 1982--on genocide charges in a court in Spain. The latest film, "500 Years," came out this week, and follows another Rios Montt trial, this time in Guatemala, and the 2015 protest movement against government corruption that led to the resignation and imprisonment of President Otto Perez Molina.

--How did you get interested in Guatemala in the first place and what brought you to the country?

 I was working as a sound recorder in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the late 70s and early 80s. I heard about what was happening in Guatemala, that a lot of Guatemalan journalists who were trying to cover the story were being killed or disappeared. I also wanted to investigate what the role had been of the United States in destroying democracy and imposing a legacy of brutal military dictatorship. So that was really the impetus for me to go to Guatemala and find out what was happening there. And that was the first film I directed, “When the Mountains Tremble.”

 --In that film, you interview President Jose Efrain Rios Montt and other top military officials, as well as the rebels fighting against them. In making the film, do you feel you were aware of the scope of the violence that was happening around you?

I knew there was a tremendous amount of killing going on. Killing, disappearing, torturing. But I didn’t know that it was a genocide. And I use that word in the legal sense, which is only something we found out when the Commission for Historical Clarification [created by the Guatemalan government and rebels] issued its report in the mid-1990s. But at the time, of course I knew that all of this was happening, but no one knew the extent of it, especially the victims in the highlands of Guatemala. They did not know and we did not know, because in 1982 it was very difficult to communicate and it was very difficult to reach a lot of the remote hamlets where this was taking place.

 --One of the great things for me about watching “When the Mountains Tremble” now is hearing from a young Rigoberta Menchu, the indigenous organizer who later won a Nobel Peace Prize (1992), talking about her life story, before she was an international celebrity. She also makes appearances in both subsequent films. What drew you to her and what did you learn from her life and example?

I had actually shot all of "When the Mountains Tremble" when I met Rigoberta Menchu. Someone brought her to our studio in New York because they knew we were making a film about Guatemala. She had been to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Our studio was really close to the United Nations at that point. And they brought her over and I did a standard interview with her. And she was obviously a person who was so extraordinary. She was an innate leader, even back then.

I was having a lot of trouble making "When the Mountains Tremble," because it was my first film. And when you’re in a war situation, it’s very hard to understand what’s going on around you, let alone craft a coherent documentary film. You’re trying to stay safe, you’re trying to understand the forces at play, you’re trying to understand how the hell am I going to tell this story that accurately reflects what’s going on here, when so much of it is so murky. And so when Rigoberta came, I started to show her some of the footage, and she started to talk about her own life. This is before her book had come out. And I realized that actually her own life was a perfect parallel to the story and the scenes that we had already shot in Guatemala.

Then we went into a studio in New York and shot it [with] Rigoberta looking directly into the camera. That was a very unusual documentary technique at that time. People didn’t look right into the camera. This was before Errol Morris and the Interrotron. So it was very disquieting for people, not only to hear the violence inherent in the story and the attack on the indigenous people in the highlands, but having it come from a very young, very soft-spoken indigenous woman looking directly at you.

--The second film, “Granito,” focuses on the reckoning with Guatemala’s violent past: the work of forensic anthropologists digging up mass graves, of lawyers trying to prosecute Rios Montt for genocide, of children searching for their parents who had disappeared in the war. Why did you feel like revisiting Guatemala in another film and reckoning with these issues in your own life?

[I was asked] by the international lawyers' team to go into my filmic outtakes [of "When the Mountains Tremble"] to look for evidence they could use in the genocide case. One of the things about documentary filmmaking is you remember everything that was in the film, but you don’t remember what didn’t make it into the film. And when we went back to look at the interview with Rios Montt, we realized it had inculpatory evidence that would be interesting to be weighed... So it took us about 5 months to bring 4 hours of 16-mm film and quarter-inch tape into the digital realm, where it could be examined. The other thing I saw: every shot I was in. When I’m looking at this footage, I’m seeing myself 25 years younger, and that gave me the idea that I could actually be a witness and tell this story and talk about documentary filmmaking.  

--The most recent film, "500 Years," covers the genocide trial, in Guatemala, against Rios Montt. While he was convicted, and sentenced to prison, the verdict was quickly overturned, and now the retrial process is unfinished. Do you think that justice was ultimately served in this case?

I really do. I believe that the quest for justice is justice. And the daily narrative that unfolded in Guatemala between March and May 2013 was riveting. All of a sudden the possibility that genocide had been committed in Guatemala was front and center on Guatemalans' minds. I believe that the historical narrative was rewritten by that trial. I had intended just to shoot the trial. And every few days I put highlights of the trial up online, as a way of throwing the doors to the courtroom open to the entire world so that anybody could see the highlights, if you had broadband.

But then the trial was so dramatic, I thought to myself, this is going to unleash a series of forces, I don’t know what they’re going to be. I don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself. I don’t know if it’s going to be 5 years or 10 years or a generation. But this is going to change things. And wouldn’t it be interesting to make a more cerebral film than just a trial film and follow these forces out into the world.

People had so much indignation about the way that the verdict was overturned. Because it was overturned on procedural issues, not on evidentiary issues. They were so indignant when the revelations about corruption and Otto Perez Molina and the vice president and the ministers came down, that’s when they started to take to the streets. So I see all of these things so connected. I don’t think Guatemalan Spring of 2015 would have happened without the events of the trial against Rios Montt.

 --How do you see Guatemala today, particularly given the current political climate in the United States, and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric? There’s still a lot of poverty and violence in Guatemala, and many people want to leave the country. Is this a place that’s moving in a positive direction?

I see it as having two currents. One is the one which you talked about, which are all the problems that Guatemala has. And just like in the United States, a power vacuum was created when Otto Perez Molina stepped down. And into that power vacuum stepped a television actor with no previous political experience [Jimmy Morales, a former comic actor]. And he was elected president. Sound familiar? So I think he’s been an ineffectual president, ineffectual in addressing problems of poverty, inequality, and immigration. On the other hand, I see an incredible justice initiative that is targeting crimes of the past and corruption in the present and that is going forward.

I love Guatemala, as I said in "Granito," Guatemala wrapped its arms around my soul and never let me go. In all of the films I’m always finding people, I’m always looking for Guatemalans that have an idea about what is the way forward...So yes, I’m hopeful, I don’t think you can be a human rights defender without having a modicum of optimism. But still there are severe and grave problems especially in the indigenous highlands with poverty and people living below the poverty line and extreme poverty. It doesn’t have to be that way. Guatemala is a really rich country in resources. It doesn’t have to be that way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.