We’re living in something of a golden era for documentary filmmaking. Whether on the big screen, though more frequently on cable — where a plethora of specialty channels offer a variety of outlets — documentaries can more easily reach an audience than ever before. But are they making an impact? It seems that every doc that comes along is pushing some kind of issue or agenda, but that little of that is felt once the credits roll ninety minutes later. But every now and then comes a movie that shakes the ground just a little bit, and not only opens eyes, but inspires action and “Granito: How To Nail A Dictator” is a remarkable chronicle of one film that did just that.
Back in 1982, the young Pamela Yates headed to Guatemala with Newton Thomas Siegel to document the government’s ongoing, U.S. government-backed genocide of the indigenous Mayan people, and the guerilla war that was being fought. Perhaps only in the way young, naive filmmakers could, Yates and Siegel gained unprecedented access to high figures on both sides of the conflict, meeting with guerilla leaders in the mountains and forests to learn their side of the struggle, and more shockingly, even earning camera time with general Rios Montt, the man largely believed to be behind thousands and thousands of murders and responsible for many to become disappeared, never to be seen again. The resulting film, “When The Mountains Tremble,” premiered at the very first Sundance Film Festival and from there became a rallying point around which awareness was raised worldwide, leading to activist Rigoberta Menchu (a central figure in the doc) earning the Nobel Peace Prize ten years later. Now, three decades on, “When The Mountains Tremble” continues to reverberate, providing some crucial evidence that may finally see Montt pay for the crimes he committed so long ago.
Acting as a quasi-sequel to “When The Mountains Tremble,” ‘Granito’ doesn’t require you to have seen the previous film or even know all the ins and out of the strife in Guatemala (though you might want to hit Wikipedia to get a bit more than the broad strokes that are painted here). But the film gets the viewer up and running pretty quickly, and the meat of ‘Granito’ is devoted to the mounting case in the Constitutional Court Of Spain that is being built against Montt. Yates is asked to go through her archives and outtakes to see if there is anything from her film — which now stands as one of the most piercing documents of the era — that can be used to help bolster the case. And from here, we get introduced to an intriguing and courageous group of people who sift through sheafs of paperwork (the genocide, like many atrocities that have been committed around the world, was a highly efficient and extensively documented operation) and sift through graves and musty boxes to find evidence. They include: forensic archivist Kate Doyle; attorney Almudena Bernabeu; forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli; lawyer Naomi Roht-Arriaza; former resistance leader and activist Gustavo Meono, and many more.
But before a proper warrant can be issued, the Constituional Court Of Spain wants to ensure they have a rock-solid case to move forward, and investigative judge Santiago Pedraz wants to see as much evidence as possible linking the atrocities in Guatemala to the high command’s orders. Over the next year or so, survivors are brought in to tell their story to Pedraz; of what they witnessed, and endured, and it’s harrowing, moving stuff (at one point, Pedraz says he’s often felt like crying during these meetings) and Bernabeu and her team continue to assemble and find more and more evidence, with eye-opening proof coming from extensive police archives, mass graves and excised footage from “When The Mountains Tremble.” As these things unfortunately go, progress is slow, and extraditing Montt from Guatemala proves to be no easy task.
As ‘Granito’ — divided into three parts — heads into its final act, it loses focus slightly, centering on a young woman and survivor of the era on a quest to find out what happened to her father. Ultimately it serves as a reminder of how justice now can heal the wounds of the past, but until this point, the documentary moved along almost like a true-crime procedural and the change in tone and story is a bit jarring. And while Yates uses her own journey as the point which pivots the narrative, context from Guatemalan press and society would have helped shape how this case is viewed within the nation now, and provide a broader scope to the weight carried by this pending case.
While ‘Granito’ never quite lives up to it’s bold and overly optimistic subtitle ‘How To Nail A Dictator’ (when the credits roll, there is still a long way to go before justice is ultimately served), the documentary is a tribute to the pursuit of righting a terrible wrong, and to the spirit of those who selflessly act in the names of others. While North America was gripped momentarily by the Occupy movement last year, and Quebec is currently embroiled in the Printemps Erable, ‘Granito’ is a reminder that in other parts of the world, death is a bracing reality for those who speak out (death threats still arrive to those digging into the horrors of the past in contemporary Guatemala). ‘Granito’ is powerful document about the endurance required of this struggle, with decades now stretching in search of closure in Guatemala. And while that task can be wearying, there is comfort in the fact that in this instance, tyranny was unable to silence the voices of the righteous. [B+]
“Granito: How To Nail A Dictator” airs on PBS tonight at 10 PM.