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On the Horizon: An Interview with Anaïs Taracena

“On the Horizon: Outspoken Women Making Documentaries” is a Skylight series of interviews with emerging filmmakers, artists, documentarians focused on collaborative, ethical storytelling with historically disenfranchised communities around the world. Read more in the series here.

I first met Anaïs Taracena when she was a little girl in Paris, living with her family who had been exiled from Guatemala due to their revolutionary ideas. They had offered us a place to stay when the Museum of Modern Art asked us to come and screen our film “When the Mountains Tremble” along with Rigoberta Menchú. Fast forward many years later when Anaïs told me about her idea for “The Silence of the Mole” while we were together in Guatemala. She made us dig deeply into our film archive. She then served as the archival producer on our film “500 Years” and we worked together on outreach and impact campaigns. We had long conversations about this film. I encouraged her to tell the story in the first person because her perspective was so important. And now she is debuting “The Silence of the Mole,” her first feature length documentary in the United States, at DOC NYC. There will be two screenings on Nov. 14th (with Anaïs present) and Nov. 15th  Buy tickets here.


Anaïs Taracena

Anaïs Taracena: This story landed in my life because it needed to be told. Like coincidences in one’s life. First I met David Barahona, Elías Barahona’s brother, because he was the protagonist of my first short film. I didn’t go to film school, but I wanted to talk about how exile affects a person’s life.

A year later, an Italian filmmaker and activist who had filmed in Guatemala in the early 80s saw my short film and gave me a VHS videotape with a testimony by Elías Barahona from 1983, in which he denounced the creation of death squads by the Guatemalan government.

In 2011, I met Elías for the first time and gave him the VHS tape. He had never seen that testimony and over time we became very good friends. He began to share with me periods of his life, especially those four years as he infiltrated the military dictatorship, working as head of press for the Minister of the Interior from 1976 to 1980.

A few years after we’d met, Elías asked me to film him as he testified at the trial for the Spanish Embassy Massacre which happened in 1980 and where 37 people died. That massacre is considered a watershed in a civil war that lasted 36 years. Elías died two weeks after testifying. His death was the impetus for this film, which has taken me into the hidden corners of a country marked by war and the ensuing silences that affect us as a society.

I also believe that what led me to tell this story is the desire to try to understand my parents’ generation and to try to understand not only how the war has marked us but also how we inherit the silences and fears of our fathers’ and mothers’ generation.

For me, the story of The Mole is unusual and in Guatemala it has been erased, like so many other stories. Almost nobody knows who Elías Barahona was or what he did. Few stories have been told about how the repression was experienced during the war in Guatemala City and I wanted to tell the urban story, since I’m urban and it’s my family’s origin. 


Anaïs Taracena: Actually, when I filmed Elías before he died I didn’t know I was going to make a documentary, much less a documentary like this one. However, I did know that it was important to film his testimony, that’s why I proposed to him that I film it.

The catalyst to making the documentary was his death. That’s when I started the research, but I was faced with several obstacles. First, I realized that many of the people I was meeting as I researched and who were of Elías’ generation did not want to talk or preferred not to be filmed. When I talked to these people about certain topics, they lowered their tone of voice and changed their body language. So from the beginning, silence was a key element in the film. 

The other challenge is that in Guatemala many of the archival images of the war years were lost, destroyed by the police, or rotted with the passage of time. The few institutions that have saved the country’s visual memory work with very few resources. There are no television news archives from the 1970’s and 1980’s. There is not a single one. It is possible that some archives still exist, but they must be hidden because there is no political will to bring them to light. So the search for images of the past was very complex, that’s why this search is also part of the film.

This obstacle made me search for archives that were filmed by foreign filmmakers and journalists. Because those images were saved because the films were taken out of Guatemala. At that time there was a lot of support from people and solidarity groups, such as yours: Skylight Pictures with the documentary “When the Mountains Tremble,” which for me, is a seminal documentary to understanding the recent history of Guatemala. In addition, Skylight Pictures’ film archive on the war in Guatemala in the 80’s is a film treasure. In the documentary “The Silence of the Mole” we use part of that film archive and an interview you filmed with Elías Barahona in 1982, which is impressive.


Anaïs Taracena: At first I hadn’t considered using my own voice.  In fact, I didn’t want to use it at all, but when I decided to integrate the search for images itself into the film and weave a contemporary reflection on silences, my voice became necessary. Because it is this voice that weaves the intergenerational dialogue and describes the gaze of my generation towards Eliías’ generation.

I also think it was important for me to tell the story in the first person because, although it is a film circumscribed by a specific historical context, there is a position and a subjectivity in my political view. I wanted that subjectivity to be taken on and transparent in the film. The film was made with rigorous historical research, the images that you see correspond to that period of Elías’ life as a mole. A lot of archival research was done in newspapers, photographs, and film collections.

But in the narrative and aesthetic creation of the film there is a subjective view of how I see and  understand political history and I wanted it to be transparent.

I come from a Guatemalan father and a French mother. I grew up outside Guatemala because my father was in exile and could not return. We lived in Mexico and when I was six years old I went to live in Costa Rica where I lived all my adolescence. So Guatemala was always part of our lives, but in exile.  Many Guatemalans and Central Americans in exile  passed through my house. Ever since we were young, my sisters and I heard about the war, the military, the revolutionary movement. But there were also topics that were talked about with a lot of caution, with many silences and that always made me very curious. We saw how my father suffered for not being able to return to Guatemala. In fact, neither he nor my uncles and cousins were able to return to Guatemala from Costa Rica, until signing of the Peace Accords in 1996.  

That has undoubtedly marked my creative decisions and the themes I have wanted to research. Many of the short and medium-length films I have made have to do with memory, nostalgia, resilience, dignity. I inherited that interest from my family history and it’s also a way of understanding and processing my relationship with Guatemala.

Featured image: Anaïs Taracena fiilming Elías Barahona giving key testimony in the Spanish Embassy trial. 

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an award-winning film director and the co-founder of Skylight, a not-for-profit media organization that for over 35 years has combined cinematic arts with the quest for justice to inspire the defense of human rights. Skylight’s films and programs strengthen social justice movements and catalyze collaborative networks of artists and activists.

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