EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
From the Sundance catalog: “Late in the twentieth century, in response to horrific atrocities igniting increasingly around the world, more than 60 countries united to launch the International Criminal Court (ICC)—the first permanent home for prosecuting perpetrators (no matter how powerful) of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Pamela Yates’s The Reckoning follows charismatic ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for three years across four continents as he and his team tirelessly issue arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, put Congolese warlords on trial, challenge the U.N. Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president for the Darfur massacres, and shake up the Colombian justice system.”
Director: Pamela Yates
Producer: Paco de Onís
Cinematographer: Melle van Essen
Editors: Peter Kinoy, Dara Kell
Composer: Roger C. Miller
U.S.A., 2009, 100 mins., color
Please introduce yourself…
I am Pamela Yates, the co-founder of Skylight Pictures, Inc. a New York City based multi-media company committed to producing artistic, challenging and socially relevant independent documentary films on issues of human rights and the quest for justice. Through the use of film and digital technologies, the Skylight Pictures team seeks to engage, educate and increase understanding of human rights amongst the public at large and policy makers, contributing to informed decisions on issues of social change and the public good.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I was born in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania and ran away to New York City when I was 15 years old. I’ve lived in New York ever since. Oral storytelling was a big deal in the town of Clarks Summit (pop. 2000) where I was born. It was an Irish-Catholic enclave, a coal mining area, and popularity was based on how good a yarn you could spin. Storytelling was in the genes and naturally led me to becoming a filmmaker. I made my first feature length film When the Mountains Tremble in 1982. In a special twist of destiny, the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 25 years ago (in 1984), and as Sundance celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, my new film “The Reckoning” will have its world premiere.
What prompted the idea for “The Reckoning” and how did it evolve?
“The Reckoning” is the story of the first 6 tumultuous years of the International Criminal Court, the first permanent international criminal court to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Isn’t it amazing that we now have a court that can try powerful people, even heads of states, for genocide. The Court’s latest most incredible development has been the seeking of an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir for his role in perpetrating genocide in Darfur. The idea came to us (me, along with Paco de Onís, the Producer and Peter Kinoy, the Editor) as we first began to hear about the Court and its ambitious attempt to have alleged perpetrators arrested during ongoing conflicts. The Reckoning took us 3 years, across 4 continents and is spoken in 6 languages. We covered the work of the Court in conflict zones in Sudan, Uganda, Colombia and the Congo. And filmed the great debates of our time at the United Nations Security Council, in the corridors of power in Washington DC, and the inner workings of the Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge on “The Reckoning” was trying to keep safe and do good work in war zones. Militia leaders and others thought we were spies gathering evidence for the International Criminal Court because our filming was about describing the scene of the alleged crimes. The concept of being independent of the Court didn’t seem to sink in to those who wished us harm, so we had to keep a very low profile and be very protective of people who were brave enough to talk to us on camera. Where we filmed in the eastern Congo was incredibly remote. We were only able to reach the location by begging a ride on a UN Peacekeepers single engine plane. Another more cerebral challenge was how to tell the story of these rich and diverse countries, their struggles, their hopes, their dreams, their wars in all their complexity, without overwhelming the viewer with facts and information. In the end, I think we were able to streamline The Reckoning in a way that gives takes the viewers on an amazing journey and leaves them with a great deal of hope for the success of international justice and the Court because you can actually see the effect the Court is having around the world. Minor challenges were finding potable drinking water and electricity to recharge and to download the P2 cards. We had to stick together and build strong esprit d’ corps as a crew so we would not succumb to fear.
Describe your approach to making the film…
The approach to “The Reckoning” was to tell the story though the eyes of the extraordinary international cast of people at the Court who were trying to bring justice and by extension peace and security to a world in turmoil. They see their work as just one tool in the human rights toolbox.
What are your creative influences?
My biggest influences are Haskell Wexler (especially “Medium Cool”), Patricio Guzmán (“Battle of Chile”, “Intimate Memories”, “The Pinochet Case”), Susan Meiselas (“Pictures from a Revolution”), Jonathan Demme (all his films, but especially his documentaries), and Peruvian filmmaker, Javier Corcuera (“The Back of the World”, “Winter in Baghdad”). The first film I remember seeing at 6 years old at the Comerford Theater on State Street in Clarks Summit was “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I was the same age as Scout, the film changed my life. Since then, I never stopped wanting to be a filmmaker or believing in the power of film to illuminate the dark places.
I am also influenced by the great photographers and photojournalists, especially of Magnum Photos Agency—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Gilles Peress, and La Meiselas of course. Whenever I begin to think about how to visualize an idea for a film, I look through photo books and spend hours discussing mood, the look, the light with the director of photography. On The Reckoning I worked with an extraordinary cinematographer who I came to call The Dutch Master, Melle van Essen from The Netherlands.
How do you define success, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
My success as a filmmaker is based on the impact that the kinds of film I make can have, and I don’t base that impact on boffo box office.
“The Reckoning” is the flagship film for a 3 year Audience Engagement Campaign intended to get people around the world involved in international justice. From the very beginning of thinking about how to make the film we were thinking about how to create educational modules for the web and adapt digital technologies for human rights work. The result is that we and our Skylight Pictures Audience Engagement Team will launch IJCentral.org* (International Justice Central) a global social network that will drive an alternative distribution and advocacy model for the “The Reckoning” at Sundance 09 Film Festival at our premiere on January 19, 2009. Our challenge is to ensure “The Reckoning” film will inspire and energize audiences to follow through to IJCentral.org, building a global grassroots movement in support of an effective international justice system that will hold perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide accountable, no matter how powerful they may be.
IJCentral.org will implement a multi-platform citizen engagement strategy using online mapping technology at its core to visualize the global social network. It will aggregate blogs, videos, SMS text messaging, media modules created from “The Reckoning” footage, Facebook and MySpace groups, email listserve groups, news feeds, and photo feeds, taking advantage of all the social bookmarking applications available online. Making use of mobile phones, the world’s most widely distributed communications platform, Twitter (www.twitter.com) text messaging will be incorporated into the map, allowing activists, victims, educators, students and other members of the network to upload SMS text messages to the map, where a global conversation about justice will appear as geo-located pop-ups on the map. As it accumulates content from users, IJCentral.org will become an invaluable resource and database for human rights advocates and activists around the world, and a powerful action tool.
Do you have any projects in the works?
My next film “Granito” is a sequel to “When the Mountains Tremble.” The story unfolds over a 25 year dramatic arc. The generals of the brutal military dictatorship in Guatemala that appear in When the Mountains Tremble are being charged with genocide for their role in the deaths of 200,000 mostly Mayan peasants. I’ve been asked to use the film and to go back into all the filmic outtakes from “Mountain”s to be used as forensic evidence in the criminal case against the generals. Granito is also an exploration of film documentary filmmaking and how these films make a difference. “Granito” is about how each of us can add our tiny grain of sand and make a difference in this world.