Two Films: "When the Mountains Tremble" and "Granito" | Documentary Review
"When The Mountains Tremble" Documentary
Director Pamela Yates is my new hero. Her two films, When The Mountains Tremble (1983) and Granito (2011) are testaments to the power of documentary filmmaking.Watch "When The Mountains Tremble" Documentary
I recently watched both documentaries one evening, in large part, because I am currently doing some photography and video work in Guatemala. I was told by a woman at Cerro de la Cruz (the big cross that overlooks Antigua) that these two films were must-sees to better understand the recent struggles of the indigenous people of Guatemala.
In "When the Mountains Tremble", Yates and her team embedded themselves on both sides of a vicious civil war that was taking place in Guatemala in the early 80's. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but wonder how she was able to gain access to both sides of this story. (Granito, her follow up film sheds light on this.)
"When the Mountains Tremble" tells the story of how the United States essentially set up power in Guatemala (to best serve the interests of American business interests, of course) and how that established power used the military might provided by the United States to commit acts of genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala.
As far as storytelling goes, Yates let a lot of b-roll footage do the talking. Hearing directly from the Mayans as they suffered through brutal fear tactics, torture and murder provided a story line that simple narration could never match. Yates and her camera team were present at some very key moments.
They arrived at a village in the immediate aftermath of government killing of village people. Bodies lay dead on the ground with friends and family mourning over their loved ones. Children looked with amazement, their eyes trying hard to comprehend what they were seeing.
The documentary team was also able to hitch a ride with government soldiers in a helicopter as they patrolled the mountains looking for the "Communists" that were disturbing the otherwise peaceful tranquility of Guatemala.
Another memorable scene showed three "Communist Guerrillas" (three young women, with guns) as one of them sat there knitting; describing why she was resisting the Guatemalan government. It was obvious which side had Truth on it's side in that simple scene. What the government described as terrible guerrillas set out on breaking any sense of peace were actually normal people trying to defend themselves. I say normal in the sense that they were not trained warriors. Calling them "normal" gives insult to their true bravery and courage.
Granito: How To Nail A Dictator" | Documentary Review
"Granito" serves several purposes. It serves as a follow up story to "When the Mountains Tremble", some 30 years later. Granito also serves to shed some light on how "When the Mountains Tremble" was made.
Granito goes into detail about how Yates and her team were able to gain the confidence of Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator during the filming of "When the Mountains Tremble". Thereby answering a question I asked myself while watching the first film.
Granito also explains how Yates was able to gain access to the hidden rebel camps high up in the Guatemalan highlands. But most importantly, Granito shows how archival interview footage of Montt taken during the filming of "When the Mountains Tremble" was actually used against Montt in court and helped to ensure that he stood trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
As a side note, just last month (January 2013), the Guatemalan government decided that Montt would stand trial for his crimes. This was a watershed moment in the history of a Guatemalan government that is notorious for not seeking justice.
Yates is my new hero because she made change happen with her films. As I sat and watched both of these films, I felt... small.
I felt that whatever stories I try to tell with my camera will never match the magnitude or have the cause and effect that I would want any of my prior or future films to have. That my efforts simply amount to a grain of sand. But then, as Granito was wrapping up, Yates explained what Granito means. In short, it means that no one person can do it alone. If there is change to be made, it will take the efforts of everyone, no matter how small their effort. When you place all of those grains of sand together, you have a foundation, you have a force that cannot be reckoned with.
When the Mountains Tremble and Granito most certainly humbled me as a filmmaker. And at the same time, they have inspired me as a filmmaker. And as a result, this grain of sand will keep on shooting.