The Battle for Guatemala

Last week the battle for the soul of Guatemala came to a head during the genocide trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. After the prosecution rested its case midweek with a screening of the full interview of General Ríos Montt conducted by Pamela Yates in 1982, the Ríos Montt defense said that their witnesses weren’t reachable, that their videos weren’t ready, and so forth – they were clearly delay tactics, in the face of which Judge Yasmín Barrios adjourned the trial to give them time to come back the next day prepared to defend their client.

ERM defense team 2As soon as she left the courtroom the defense team rushed to present a motion to the prosecution that they had filed in another branch of the judicial system, demanding the annulment of the trial. This led to a rather comical press crush that swung back and forth between the defense and prosecution tables as everybody tried to figure out what was going on. The defense strategy became clear – rather than prepare for a trial and gather evidence that would defend their client Ríos Montt, they applied their tried and true tactic of having a judge in the judicial system emit questionable rulings favorable to their aim of blocking or shutting down any genocide trial against Ríos Montt.

Judge Patricia FloresThat judge turned out to be Carol Patricia Flores, who has a checkered record of handing down questionable if not outright illegal rulings that reveal a pattern of bolstering entrenched impunity in Guatemala. Before her ruling to stop the trial was made official at 2pm on Thursday afternoon, that morning the Ríos Montt defense team had staged a stormy exit from Judge Barrios’ courtroom, shouting that the trial was an illegitimate sham. With only a couple of days left for the trial to conclude, their move of last resort was to try to delegitimize the trial and force it to shut down. After Judge Flores issued her ruling that afternoon before yet another press crush, it was followed by TV, newspaper and radio attacks on Judge Barrios and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, impugning their character and questioning their motives, and giving voice to Ríos Montt supporters that claim there has never been a genocide in Guatemala.

People stand up in CourtroomBut AG Claudia Paz y Paz fought back saying that the Judge Flores ruling was illegal, and the next morning Judge Barrios convened her court and announced that she also considered the ruling illegal and that she would not heed it, and she was asking the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad – the ultimate judicial arbiter in Guatemala) to make a decision on whether the case could proceed. This led to a huge cheer from the audience and prolonged chants of “justicia, justicia” – it was an extraordinary moment and will go down in the annals of human rights history no matter which way the Constitutional Court decides (they have 10 working days to decide as of this past Friday April 20). The swell of emotion was clear in Judge Barrios’ expression as she clasped her hands to her heart and thanked the audience – she became an instant human rights hero.

Pam and RigoIn many ways all of this has made me think of the Jim Crow trials in the American South, reminiscent of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, with Judge Barrios being the Atticus Finch of this story, standing up against the deeply powerful forces of impunity. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was the first film that Pamela Yates ever saw and it opened her eyes to injustice in the world and put her on a path that led to the making of “When the Mountains Tremble”, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” and now “The Dictator in the Dock” (working title). Rigoberta Menchú was in the audience as well, and all these days at the trial I’ve often thought of her and Pamela’s parallel journeys in seeking redress for the tragedy that befell Guatemala, and how their paths have crossed again at this dramatic juncture of history.

With the court session closed, the gathered crowd spilled into the streets and marched 10 blocks through downtown Guatemala City to the doors of the Constitutional Court, demanding that it not become a court of impunity. Now we wait to hear what they will decide.

One big factor in play is how much the prospect of international opprobrium might play in the decisions of the judges, and how much pressure they might be getting from President Otto Pérez Molina one way or the other. While some say that Pérez Molina is wary that the genocide trial could eventually implicate him for his role in 1982 as military commander of the Nebaj army base (in the Ixil region), he has also made a great effort to position himself in the world as a respected statesman, by having Guatemala join the International Criminal Court the day after he took office; getting invited to the Clinton Global Initiative; receiving the Key to the City of Madrid; and so forth. A vote for impunity by the Constitutional Court could deal a serious blow to that image, and could spark a very embarrassing international campaign against impunity in Guatemala that could bring to light many facts beyond what has been presented at the Ríos Montt trial already. This week could tell what the future holds – stay tuned.

night vigil


“A Greater Story Never Told”


Yesterday began the historic trial of retired General and former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges that he committed genocide against nearly 2000 Maya-Ixil people in Guatemala in 1982 – throngs gathered inside and outside the courtroom.  The dictator finally facing justice!  Guatemalan bootleggers at the scene saw this as an opportunity to sell pirated DVDs of our film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which tells the story of how our film became evidence in the genocide case.  If you look closely at the text at the top of the DVD, it says “UNA HISTORIA MAS GRANDE JAMAS CONTADA” (“A GREATER STORY NEVER TOLD”).  There is no honor or award that could surpass this endorsement of our film by the Guatemalan people.  Bootleggers all over the world are tuned in to their cultures, and what people want to see and hear.  Having your film bootlegged in a country is a great affirmation of its value in that society, whether it be for entertainment or in this case, hunger for a suppressed history and the restoration of collective memory.  The street price, by the way, is 10 Guatemalan Quetzales (US$1.25).

Using a Film to Nail a Dictator



Efrain Ríos Montt is going to trial. The brutal Guatemalan dictator is the first head of state to be prosecuted for genocide in genuine proceedings in his own country. And my video evidence helped send him there.

I went to Guatemala in 1982 to make my first feature-length documentary When the Mountains Tremble. Rigoberta Menchú, the protagonist, lays out what was happening from the Mayan perspective – why they were fighting, what they were fighting for, and how the civilian population was being viciously targeted by the Army in a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign backed by the United States.

After Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala in 1996, a Truth Commission uncovered evidence that “acts of genocide” had been perpetrated by the State. This occurred during the bloody tenure of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the President and Head of the Armed Forces from 1982 – 1983, a period when the civilian massacres spiked. Yet whenever the possibility of seeking justice for Ríos Montt’s horrific crimes came to the fore, the General and his legal defense made excuses. Their primary assertion was that the General hadn’t known about it, nor had he ordered it. They ascribed the massacres to “rogue” elements in the Army.


Photo credit: Dana Lixenberg / Skylight Pictures

In 2003, I went to Guatemala to present the first public screening of When the Mountains Tremble at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Although it premiered at the first Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast throughout the world, the film had been banned in Guatemala for 20 years. The auditorium was packed, standing room only. People told me as I entered that they had shown When the Mountains Tremble clandestinely thousands of times during the war years.

In the audience that night was an international attorney. She approached me afterwards and asked whether I had kept all of the filmic outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble.  She was investigating a genocide case, and two of the generals in When the Mountains Tremble were part of that investigation – General Efraín Ríos Montt and General Benedicto Lucas García.  Could I go and find the entire interviews I’d done with the Generals? Could I find all of the film of military missions including aftermaths of massacres?

And so we embarked on a kind of archeological dig through 25-year-old outtakes of 16mm negative film and ¼ audio recording tape, the raw materials of When the Mountains Tremble. Miraculously, I and my Skylight Pictures partners—Paco de Onís, the Producer, and Peter Kinoy, the Editor—had kept all of the outtakes in a warehouse in the swamplands of New Jersey.

The lawyers were as surprised as we were when they saw the outtakes.. In 1982, I had asked: “What would you say to the charges that it’s the Army that is massacring (Mayan) peasants in the highlands? Is there repression on the part of the Army?”

Ríos Montt responded, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. The Army is ready and able to act, because if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”

My filmic evidence helped prove the prosecution’s command responsibility liability theory: Ríos Montt ordered the targeted killings.

All of this became part of the film GRANITO: How to Nail a Dictator, as well as the legal case. The prosecution actually projected parts of GRANITO on the walls of the courtroom during the evidentiary hearings. I was asked to testify in the case, show and verify the filmed material in court. It was important for me to testify to the fact that I had actually filmed all of the projected film and that the Judge see me there in the footage from 1982. I entered the DVDs of the outtakes and entire transcripts of interviews which had been typed on a manual typewriter in triplicate with carbon paper, as exhibits into evidence. I will never throw out anything ever again.

credit: Jean-Marie Simon


The search for forensic evidence was the genesis of GRANITO: How to Nail a Dictator.

I wanted to tell the story of the Guatemalan people who had never given up on the quest for justice to seek redress for the sole genocide in the Americas of the 20th century – the Guatemalan state’s attack on the Maya people – and include the role a documentary film played in that process. Because I was in every shot of the original footage, so that we could sync the image of me slapping the microphone with the 16mm film, we decided to include me in GRANITO, as a documentary filmmaker, as a witness. I wanted to relate not only the acts of genocide that occurred in Guatemala, but share my experiences over the years as a human rights filmmaker, for the next generation of documentarians.

The meaning of the word “granito” or tiny grain of sand, is a Mayan concept based in their communal values. It says that each of us has something to contribute to positive social change or in this case, justice. And that together we can make that change. The survivors, forensic anthropologists, archivists, and attorneys inside Guatemala and around the world have been tirelessly contributing their granitos.

In the past year the gathering of evidence and testimonies, plus the political will to prosecute in Guatemala have reached a justice tipping point. Last week, a Guatemalan judge cleared the way forward.

Ríos Montt’s trial begins.

This blog post first appeared on the WITNESS blog.

Imagining Impact: Documentary Film and the Production of Political Effects



The title of this blog is actually pulled from a fine essay by filmmaker and friend Meg McLagan, published in her anthology titled Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Non-Governmental Activism, published in 2012 by Zone Books.  If you’re interested in the nexus of politics and art and activism, I highly recommend this book.  For you filmmakers out there, here is a quote from the essay: “The structural transformation of long-form documentary in the last decade has reshaped its capacity for political intervention, the types of claims it makes, and the forms through which it makes them. One can see this as part of the broader reconstitution of politics and media that has taken place across a variety of domains, driven in part by developments in digital technologies.”

Regarding #stopKony

In terms of practical approaches to apprehending Kony, since I became aware of him when we began to make The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court in 2006, I’ve always wondered, who pays his satellite phone bill?  Where is he getting arms and ammunition?  Who is aiding and abetting him from the outside, and doesn’t the sat phone company know exactly where he is every time he turns on the phone, or even when the phone is off?  If I can locate my iPhone from my laptop, why can’t international intelligence operatives, and the U.S. army advisors on the ground in Uganda, figure out where he is?  We could find bin Laden but not Kony?  These are the questions that make me wonder what’s going on.  I have no conspiracy theory about this, but I do wonder why the issue of how Kony survives as an armed and connected warlord with backers, is never addressed.

Jumping Into the Fray for Justice

How can a documentary film contribute to social movements? By telling a story that captures the zeitgeist of a historical moment, that stirs and inspires audiences to reflect and to act. In this past year Granito: How to Nail a Dictator screened around the globe, from Amman to Auckland, Paris to Havana, São Paulo to Vancouver, New York to Moscow, Geneva to Lima, in over 50 film festivals. In screening after screening, audiences connected to the theme of the power of collective change espoused in Granito, resonating with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.  But most remarkably, Granito’s release added its ‘grain of sand’ to the tipping point for justice reached in Guatemala this year, where more perpetrators of the genocide against the Maya people have been arrested, tried and convicted  than in the previous 30 years since we released When the Mountains Tremble .  And now to reinforce that tipping point, we are launching a companion digital project designed to restore the collective memory of the genocide in a public online archive, described here – Granito: Every Memory Matters.  The film’s journey is reflected in the Granito Facebook page, where nearly 4,000 followers have rallied, sharing stories, news, and demanding justice.  And to get a sense of the people behind all of this, check out this slide show of photos of ‘granitos’ by renowned portraitist Dana Lixenberg.

As documentary activists who use film and advanced technologies to further human rights through storytelling, it’s been a memorable year for us, from the standing ovation at Granito’s Sundance Film Festival debut last January, to being Opening Night Film at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, to vibrant discussions about power and democracy sparked at the Moscow screening , to meeting the amazing community that underpins Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, to the nearly 1,500 people that filled 3 screenings in one night at the Hot Docs Doc Soup series in Toronto.  Another major highlight of the year was our Kickstarter campaign to make an indie run for an Oscar nomination, which brought 346 backers together with the goal of introducing the message of Granito to the millions of viewers that tune in to watch the Academy Awards.  In spite of a valiant effort we ultimately didn’t get nominated, but our biggest reward is that now we have 346 committed backers who believe in what we do!

“A Hymn to the Power of Filmmaking”

This really captures the essence of “Granito: How To Nail A Dictator”: “‘Granito’” is remarkable for allowing two intertwined stories, one global and the other personal, to unfold together.  It presents the hurricane of violence that enveloped Guatemala 25 years ago not just as a historical horror, but as a lens through which the filmmaker examines herself, her values, and her relationship to her art.  Subtle, provocative, and deeply original, it is a hymn to both the nobility of Guatemalans and the power of filmmaking.”

This great quote came from Stephen Kinzer, co-author of “Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala”, an inspiration for the making of “When the Mountains Tremble”, the prequel to “Granito”.

The Reckoning Nominee for Major Award

We are thrilled that our film The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court is one of 5 nominees for the new PUMA.Creative Impact Award, with the winner announced on October 11 in a gala ceremony hosted with Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation at the Mandarin Hotel in London.  As described by the sponsor, it is “a major new annual award to honour the documentary film creating the most significant impact in the world. This 50,000 Euro award acknowledges the film’s makers and will help the continuation of the film’s campaign work.” Wow!

Click here to check out the cool awards trailer from PUMA.

If you want to join the global conversation about international justice happening right now, check out IJCentral, the companion site to The Reckoning that we created for our ongoing outreach campaign in the fight to end impunity for massive crimes against humanity.


Granito Making its NY Theatrical Run at IFC Center

This is the long-awaited New York theatrical opening of “Granito: How To Nail A Dictator”.  The exclusive NY run will last 9 days and serve for Oscar qualification as well.  Filmmakers Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy and Paco de Onís will be present for Q&As at the evening screenings on September 14 through September 18. So come join us! [IFC Ceneter]

“The Reckoning” nominated for the PUMA Impact Award!

We’re thrilled that our film The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court has been nominated for the PUMA Creative Impact Award, announced last night in a ceremony at the Durban International Film Festival.  The PUMA is a new annual award that looks set to become the Oscar of impact, outreach and audience engagement for social justice films.

We have been doing a huge amount of outreach with The Reckoning over the past 3 years all over the globe, doing our best to increase knowledge of how the International Criminal Court (ICC) operates in the world, and the inherent drama of trying to fulfill a justice mandate to bring perpetrators of massive crimes to account.  It’s nice to receive recognition, and now we just have keep our fingers crossed for the final decision on October 11 – the PUMA carries a 50,000 euro prize, no small piece of change!