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When the Mountains Tremble Turns 40

photo: Rigoberta Menchú and Pamela Yates reflecting on their work together creating When the Mountains Tremble,
and their enduring friendship

We’re kicking off a year of screenings commemorating the 40th anniversary of our first feature-length documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, starting with a special event on October 1st at the Woodstock Film Festival. Although it’s been four decades since Mountains launched at the first Sundance Film Festival and received the Special Jury Award, its relevance endures in a world where democracies are increasingly under siege by authoritarian forces. In the cyclical tradition of the Mayan calendar, social processes that were coming into their fullness in Guatemala when the film was shot–the epic struggle of a people to assert their rights and self-determination–are again activated in a new “Guatemalan Spring.” 

Let me explain. When the Mountains Tremble begins in the action. The “Guatemalan Spring,” a 10-year period where the country experienced democracy for the first time, has begun and with it basic reforms that are so threatening to the status quo and the U.S. government, that the elected leaders are overthrown by the Guatemalan military in a 1954 CIA-sponsored coup. The film then continues the story of how Guatemalans took up arms attempting to overthrow a brutal military dictatorship and take their country back. Maya K’iche’ leader Rigoberta Menchú was there; she tells the story. This enduring classic of war and social upheaval made two things possible: it helped put Rigoberta on the world stage–ten years later she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992; and footage we shot for the film became key forensic evidence to help convict General Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013. 

Today, Bernardo Arévalo, the son of Juan José Arévalo who kicked off the “Guatemalan Spring” as president in 1944, has become the president elect of Guatemala. He is set to take office in January, 2024. The entrenched business and political elite are doing everything they can to stop him and a peaceful transfer of power is not guaranteed. The cycle has come back around, the struggle to regain their democracy continues, and When the Mountains Tremble is as relevant today as it was in 1983.

Read all about Bernardo Arévalo’s political positions and his exciting non-stop campaign for President ending in victory, from Skylight’s Vaclav Masek in his first, second, and third “Dispatches from Guatemala.”

And join us as we launch the 40th anniversary tour of When the Mountains Tremble at a Special Event screening of Woodstock Film Festival on October 1st at 1pm.

September 11, 2023: Fifty years after Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup and died here, his image was projected onto La Moneda Presidential Palace.

Marking another important anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile, Alexander Wilde, a Skylight Board Member emeritus and former Vice President of the Ford Foundation as well as Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), has written an essay entitled “The Breakdown of Democracy, Human Rights, and Memory” as part of a forthcoming book that looks back at the influential writing in Dr. Arturo Valenzuela’s The Breakdown of Democracy, Chile (1978). Here’s an excerpt:

The dictatorship had violated fundamental rights on a scale unprecedented in Chilean history — as a policy intended to keep a whole society in submission. And civil society had responded with a movement for human rights that was similarly unprecedented. Beginning with small symbolic protests in the late 1970s it grew into a broad social cause in the 1980s, shared across the parties and factions that became the democratic opposition…

The essay will be published in the book “El quiebre de la democracia: 50 años después” by Editorial Universidad de Santiago de Chile, edited by Pamela Figueroa and Peter M. Siavelis.

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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