Films with Impact- Granito: How to Nail a Dictator




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Granito stitches together two stories: a documentation of Guatemala’s “secret war” in 1982, and today’s efforts to disclose the  truths of Montt’s regime.

For Paco de Onis, the movie’s producer and his colleagues, director Pamela Yates and editor Peter Kinoy, at New York-based Skylight Pictures, the story of Guatemala’s recent past has captured them — and their audiences — repeatedly.  For those who’ve questioned if documentary films actually make a social impact, Granito destroys those doubts.  The film which looks at the Guatemalan war from the early 1980s is a unique project because the director, Pamela Yates, actually shot the footage back in 1982 herself.

At the time she was working on another documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, which went on to win countless awards at film festivals.  It captured a sliver of Guatemalan history, narrated by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu, that’s ignored in the country’s schools today and is largely unknown to Americans.  In 1982, while filming the battle between the right wing government’s military and the local Mayan people and guerrilla fighters, Yates happened to get an interview with then Guatemalan president (or rather, military dictator) Efraín Ríos Montt.

Fast forward about 30 years later: an international lawyer approached Yates requesting excerpts and outtakes of the interview that would help her frame a genocide case against Montt.  Yates had the documentary evidence in old film reels.  And that’s how Granito was born.

“There are people coming out of the film, crying, overwhelmed by it.  They didn’t know that such a thing happened in Guatemala and they’re surprised that it’s not been talked about more,” de Onis says.

That’s why Skylight Pictures has been religiously showing the film at a variety of venues from the prestigious Sundance film festival to college campuses and this coming January, the documentary will be aired nationally on PBS.

“There are so many college programs on international law, humanitarian issues.  So, we take our work to the classrooms as well, not just film festivals,” de Onis emphasizes.

But for the communities in Guatemala and their offspring around the world, the story has a personal significance that Skylight Pictures wants to put into one central platform, a way for them to craft the larger narrative of those years under Montt’s reign.  For that, they’re using a crowdsourcing approach, inviting people to share their stories and images that will be placed in an online public archive.

“We’re going to try to begin a conversation across the generations to try to take away the fear about talking about the genocide,” says Yates in an informational video, describing the project.

De Onis explains that the idea was actually homegrown, something that they kept on hearing while shooting the documentary, Granito, in Guatemala.   “It sparked a lot of anger in some cases, as to why was this history not shared with us before, especially among young people.  So, it came out of those requests to collect all these stories,” he says.

The project will have several components: the original documentary will be shown to young Guatemalans to give them some historical context; for the elders, it’s an effort to reawaken their memories; then, the young ones will interview an elder member of the family to get a memory – either in text,  in an image, or if possible, in a video.  All of these stories will then be threaded together in the Granito: Every Memory Matters (GEMM) online platform.

“It’s meant to be a healing process.  It’s also meant to tip the scale towards justice,” Yates says.

But, the project doesn’t stop there.   The documentary will be translated into local languages as well.  Since there’s 22 languages in Guatemala, de Onis explains, they will be translating their work into two main dialects, K’iche and Ixil.   And in March 2012, the film will have a formal release in Guatemala.

Currently, the film is on tour with Human Rights Watch, traveling around the country.

de Onis says that the film couldn’t have a better time for its release.  2011 has seen countless protests across the world, a cry for change, he says, something that reminds him of his youth in the 60s.

“A wave of activity across the world is asking for change.  And the concept of collective change is also at the heart of the film.  So, it’s an exciting time and fits in with the film as well,”  de Onis concludes.


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