'Granito': A Small Film Seeks Justice for Guatemalan Genocide

Mar 21, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Pamela Yates went to Guatemala to direct her first documentary in 1982, during a brutal era of that nation's history that saw 200,000 Guatemalans killed as they tried to shake loose General Efraín Ríos Montt's repressive regime.

Now, clips from Yates's film (When the Mountains Tremble) are being presented as evidence in the Guatemala genocide case before the Spanish National Court (SNC). The Spanish court is attempting to hold senior Guatemalan officials accountable for terrorism, genocide and systematic torture, and has brought to life a new documentary, Granito.

Produced by Skylight Pictures, Granito tells the story of Yates's film becoming intertwined with the prosecution's case—and with the healing process of Guatemala as it moves out of tragedy. The term "granito" refers to little bits of sand that, together, can create big change.

TakePart caught up with Pamela Yates and writer and producer Peter Kinoy by email to learn more about Granito, Skylight Pictures' unconventional pursuit of an Oscar nomination, and the parallels between Guatemala's history and the current uprisings in the Middle East.

After reading, click here to help fund Granito's pursuit of an Oscar nomination. With your "granito," the filmmakers can place their movie in front of as many eyes as possible, without limitations of a distributer.

Take Part: What connection do you see between the current uprisings in the Middle East and the struggle of Guatemalans 30 years ago?

 On first glance, the events depicted in Granito in the small Central American country of Guatemala 30 years ago have little to do with the massive upheavals currently shaking the Middle East. But delve just slightly deeper, and one finds striking similarities. Seen on a human level, the desire embedded in our humanity to live peaceful productive lives as we see fit cannot be suppressed forever.  

Pamela Yates filming on &39;When the Mountains Tremble&39; in the Guatemalan highlands, 1982. The footage from this film is now being used as forensic evidence in the Guatemalan genocide case—the story told in her current film &39;Granito.&39;

In Guatemala this desire for self-determination blossomed in a democracy after WWII. But in 1954, the CIA engineered a military coup that overthrew this fledgling democracy. The Guatemalan military took control of the country and, with the support of the U.S., grew rich, powerful and ruthless. But the military dictatorship was eventually challenged by a popular uprising.

By the mid-1970s, people across Central America began to rise up against authoritarian regimes. The Guatemalans took to the streets in huge numbers demanding their rights as students, workers, and citizens. As Frank Larue, a labor activist said in When the Mountains Tremble, "The military had two options: to grant some reform or repress the movement.”

In Guatemala, 30 years ago, like Muammar Qaddafi today, the military chose force to repress the popular social movement. But 30 years ago the world didn’t step in and say “enough,” and the Guatemalan military committed genocide against 200,000 of its own citizens.

Granito documents the irrepressible nature of humans to seek justice for those horrific crimes so that the option of genocide in response to a social movement for change will never again be used.

What change do you hope will come from spreading Granito’s message?

The message in Granito is that justice and democracy come through the collective efforts of many different people all working toward the same goals, but often in very different ways. As we have seen in recent days in Egypt, big changes can happen very rapidly, but they may have taken a great many years of hidden work by countless unknown people before the sudden change occurred. We believe that Granito will inspire people to discover what they can contribute to the efforts for justice and democracy wherever they are.

The long-term strategy of Guatemalans is that they cannot become a modern, democratic nation until impunity for past crimes is addressed and justice rendered. Within the past year, we’ve seen the first convictions based on the political will to prosecute war criminals. Granito can contribute to this justice tipping point.

Military occupation of the Guatemalan highlands, 1982. The 1998 Truth Commission concluded that successive military dictatorship committed genocide against the Maya population. (Photo: Jean-Marie Simon)

Why is funding from everyday people necessary to get Granito to the Oscars? Why not go the traditional route with a commercial distributor?
At Skylight Pictures, we make films about justice and human rights. Our guiding principle is that these films become integrated into all the various social movements developing around peoples’ desire for peace, justice and democracy. We have found that to ensure the widest possible use of the films, we have had to explore new forms of distribution that break with the traditional “for profit” models that narrow the scope of distribution. On the other hand, we want to create as high a profile for Granito as possible so that people all over the world hear about it and can make use of it.

So we want to qualify the film for an Oscar nomination, but this takes about $35,000. If we went to a theatrical distributor they would advance the money, but would take control of the distribution, narrowing it into traditional for-profit channels. So we are experimenting with a crowd-funding distribution effort, a “people’s distribution” where many people who believe in the project can kick in small affordable amounts of money to ensure that we remain independent in our goal of getting Granito out to as many eyes and ears as possible. It’s acting on the very notion of each of us adding their granito. Donate to Granito here.

The Caba family in front of their home in the Ixil highland of Guatemala. The Army massacred 95 people in their village in 1982 during the genocide and since that time, the family has never stopped seeking justice for the perpetrators. (Photo: Dana Lixenberg)

After seeing Granito and donating to the Kickstarter campaign, what can TakePart readers do to help your cause?

Granito shows how important it is to look, document, understand and, finally, to act on that understanding. Each one of us is capable of these acts. So there is no one thing that people should do after seeing Granito and donating to the Kickstarter campaign. It is up to each person to find their “granito,” their tiny grain of sand, to add into the global movement for justice, human rights, and democracy.

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