It takes a true independent filmmaker to make a movie that dares to implicate the CIA in its role of facilitating the genocide of indigenous people. No major studio would ever back such a work (unless you’re wacky uncle Michael Moore). Despite declassified documents that offer the contrary, many still refuse to believe the US had anything to do with supporting murderous dictators in Central and South America in the 1980s. But the socially conscious distributor Skylight Pictures has released Granito – How To Nail a Dictator, a film that pulls together evidence of genocide during the early 1980s in Guatemala, where as many as 200,000 Mayan people living in the highlands, were killed in the early eighties.

It follows up on When the Mountains Tremble, a film that focused on the battles between the autocratic regime of Guatemala as it fought the indigenous people of Mayan descent. It was 1982 and, though a child, I remember the news then: government forces against guerrillas described as murderous communists and followers of the reviled Che Guevara who tried to incite revolution in a stable government. The cold war-fueled propaganda of the day meant the mainstream media supported these governments, just as the US did.

Almost 30 years later, Pamela Yates, one of the filmmakers of When the Mountains Tremble, has returned to outtakes from that documentary to help those still fighting for justice in the convoluted cold war era when the US not only turned a blind eye to genocide but facilitated it, giving Guatemalan forces the weaponry they used against the villagers. Kate Doyle, a Senior Analyst of US policy in Latin America and forensic archivist, worked to declassify documents that showed the US had “helped build the mindset and apparatus” that began the genocide. In testimony in Spain, during an international tribunal to make the case against Guatemala’s bully regime, a man holds images of his missing loved ones and breaks down in tears, as he says, “How can a government get aid to kill its own people?”

Despite several witnesses testimonials, the group had no physical evidence that the high command knew what soldiers were doing. Enter Yates, who scours boxes of footage filmed during the making of When the Mountains Tremble that show how she, as a fresh-faced, American-born independent filmmaker, entered the highest ranks of the Guatemalan leadership.

While the mainstream media contented themselves with attending stagey press conferences, Yates gained exclusive access to both sides of the war. She met with leaders of the Mayan freedom fighters in the high lands, even christened with a nom de guerre. She meets future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who took up the cause for the people after When the Mountains Tremble saw official release at the first Sundance Film Festival. Alternately, Yates and her cameraman Newton Thomas Sigel rode in a helicopter mission with General Benedicto Lucas García, surviving a sniper shooting from the rebels  leading to the chopper’s crash landing. Having survived that near-death experience with the troops, the country’s dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt agreed to an interview with Yates.

Yates provides the voice over to the film, spelling out the film’s thesis a little too heavy-handedly for my artistic-leaning tastes. She also seems to display some guilt for not having done more between the shooting of When the Mountains Tremble and Granito, while Menchu continued to give voice for the many “disappeared” and others performed years of painstaking work uncovering documents (Doyle) and even bones in mass graves (forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli, another US national who stills carries on working at the graves despite death threats). But the subject matter outshines this  self-consciousness.

One of the film’s most powerful moments arrives when a young woman rationalizes her search for her father, who disappeared when she was 11 years old. When a piece of paper in stacks and stacks of moldy files of police records names him, she talks about how much hope a piece of paper has granted her, as tears stream down her face. Later, Yates notes, that piece of paper would lead to the first convictions of police officers implicated in the massacres.

The concept of Granito, which literally translates to “tiny grain,” is spelled out by the end of the film. But from the beginning, the film illustrates the idea vividly. Despite an oppressive, powerful regime backed by none other than the US, the victims indeed have a chance for justice should everyone make an effort. At the film’s conclusion, the filmmakers express an awareness that much more still needs to be accomplished. Good news arrived only a few days prior to this blog post, as “the Guardian” reported that a Guatemalan judge ruled that Ríos Montt “must face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity” (“Efraín Ríos Montt: Guatemala human rights groups welcome genocide trial”). It’s a grand step toward the justice so many in the film pine for.

Hans Morgenstern

EVENT NOTE: Filmmakers Pamela Yates and  Paco de Onis will both be present for Q&A sessions at Granito‘s two opening screenings in South Florida. First on Thursday, Feb. 2, in Coral Gables, at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, at 7 p.m.  Then on Friday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is unrated and runs 103 minutes.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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