I met Rigoberta Menchú 25 years ago, when I was making my first feature length documentary “When the Mountains Tremble”.
The film tells the story of war and social revolution in Guatemala and the struggle of the largely Indian peasantry against a legacy of state and foreign oppression. Tom Sigel (co-director) and I had been filming all sides in the war – the military forces, the guerrillas, and members of civil society. Rigoberta became the protagonist of the film and her personal story was the thread that wove “When the Mountains Tremble” together. She was in exile, and her Spanish was still spotty, but the film helped introduce her to the world and 10 years later she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now Rigoberta has broken new ground in her lifelong drive to transform Guatemala – she’s the first Mayan woman to run for President! I was lucky to be in Guatemala with my filmmaking partners Peter and Paco when she launched her campaign last month with the Encuentro Por Guatemala party – it was an exhilarating feeling to see her waving to crowds from a flatbed truck, in the company of Nineth Montenegro — these are two outstanding women running on a platform of increased rights for poor and indigenous people, and an end to the drug-trafficking mafia that has turned Guatemala into a major transshipment point from Colombia to US markets.
Considering the violent power wielded by criminal drug gangs in Guatemala, this may seem like a quixotic quest, but I admire Rigoberta and Nineth’s courageous campaign and wish them great success.
Speaking of quixotic quests, Rigoberta also spearheaded a drive to end impunity for top military leaders and police accused of perpetrating a counter-insurgency war and scorched-earth policy against Guatemalan civilians in the early 1980s. She did this by appealing to the Audiencia Nacional in Spain, the same court that served the arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet in 1998 under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Under this same principle, the court accepted Rigoberta’s argument and issued arrest warrants for the gravest violators on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, including former president General Efraín Ríos Montt – tough legal battles lie ahead, but the simple fact that these arrest warrants are being upheld is a significant step towards bringing the perpetrators to account. Ríos Montt is also facing charges for crimes against humanity brought against him by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), a tenacious group of human rights advocates that have to work behind double-security doors.
Peter and I decided to make a sequel to the original film because When the Mountains Tremble, and additional hours of “outs” that didn’t make it into the final edit had been requested as filmic evidence in the genocide cases. The new film will include these new cases and Guatemala’s ongoing transition to democracy and the rule of law, and ponder how a documentary film can make a difference. Here is the trailer to “When the Mountains Tremble”:
But this new film will also incorporate When the Mountains Tremble, because 25 years later so many of the original participants in “When the Mountains Tremble” are still players in Guatemala’s ongoing political/social drama.
We went to Guatemala recently to lay the groundwork for this new film and found Rigoberta stronger and more active than ever; I reconnected with Frank LaRue, the labor lawyer who for many years lived in exile, and now holds a cabinet position as the President’s Human Rights Commissioner; I found former Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) leader Pablo Ceto training indigenous people on how to run for and assume elected positions in the highlands through his Fundación Maya. I wasn’t able to meet again (yet) with former President General Efraín Ríos Montt, but saw “Wanted for Crimes Against Humanity” posters for him even as the city and countryside were plastered with his party’s campaign slogans. He has maintained a strong power base all these years, and is running for a congressional seat that he will likely win, which under Guatemalan law would grant him immunity from prosecution. This tension between impunity and the rule of law runs high in Guatemala, and is epitomized by the parallel campaigns of Ros Montt and Rigoberta.
This tension is also revealed in the extraordinary National Police archives unearthed by Guatemalan human rights activists, 80 million documents piled floor to ceiling in an abandoned building surrounded by a police-training base. Some of the people organizing this chaotic trove were formerly targets of the apparatus of state repression who may discover that the disappearance of their family members is detailed in the police documents.
Probably my most disarming discovery was to find “Rafael” (his nom de guerre), a former guerrilla in the squad that shot down the military helicopter I was riding in (and filming from) in 1982. As destiny would have it General Benedicto Lucas García, the feared head of the Guatemalan Armed Forces, was piloting the helicopter.
Due to our emergency landing and the near death experience we shared, the General took me into his confidence, which enabled me to document in words and images the Armys genocidal scorched earth policy against the Mayan civilian population in the highlands and bring it to the attention of the world. Now General Lucas García is one of those charged in the warrants issued as a result of Rigoberta’s tireless pursuit of justice.
So this is the panorama in today’s Guatemala that will be woven with “When the Mountains Tremble” to create our new film, which we are calling “Granito.”