Q&A With Documentary Filmmaker, Pamela Yates

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Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and 2006 OPC Robert Spiers Benjamin Award winner, whose recent film, "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator" is both a memoir and an investigation of the genocide that occurred in Guatemala in the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1983 it is estimated that 70,000 people were killed or removed by the government seeking to suppress guerilla insurgencies by intimidation of the native Mayan communities. During that time, Yates filmed her first documentary "When the Mountains Tremble," which featured interviews with leaders of the Guerilla movement and the top generals of the Guatemalan army. Years later, that footage became incredibly important with the commencement of a human rights case in Madrid against the executers of the genocide. The lead lawyer in the case Almudena Bernabeu contacted Yates and asked her to go through the outtakes of "When the Mountains Tremble" to find incriminating evidence against the dictatorship. "Granito" began with that search and with Yates' realization that the story she had told in Guatemala was far from over.

Q: What kind of impact do your documentaries in Guatemala have had?

A: I made my first feature documentary in 1982, it was called When the Mountains Tremble and it concerned the genocide in Guatemala. The film was banned in Guatemala, it was shown underground at times, but the first time it was officially shown was in 2003 and it received a standing ovation. Allot of people attended and one of them was the Spanish lawyer on the case on Guatemala. She approached me and asked me to go through my old outtakes of When the Mountains Tremble to help with the human rights case in Madrid, and see if there was any evidence in hidden in my old archives. As far the impact goes, the liability theory in the genocide case is interlinked with the chain of command and a genocide case is very hard to prove. And in my film I have documented a moment when the head general, Rios Montt, actually says 'If I am not commanding the army then what am I doing?' He takes responsibility and that is very important.

Q: Do you think change is possible in Guatemala?

A: I think there have been significant efforts with significant effects made in the steps to bringing the perpetrators of the genocide at least to justice. Obviously, there is still allot that needs to be done in both the human rights case and the country in general.

Granito is a minor concept that comes from Mayans. The Spanish word means a tiny grain of sand, and the concept is that everyone has their granito, their grain of sand to contribute to crating change. It seems that many things are happening, not just the arrest of Lopez Fuentes, there are other examples of police violence that has now morphed into drug trafficking that all have been brought to justice recently. I feel that this is an important time for Guatemala.

Q: The majority of the perpetrators of the genocide continued to benefit from impunity in Guatemala. Considering this, do you believe the title "How to Nail a Dictator" is fitting?

A: I feel like Granito seems like a hopeful film not a sad one. Justice is not just something that goes to trial. There are many forms of moving forward and identifying crimes before things change because change comes very slowly. And that's why this concept of granito is so important. Especially when it comes to documentary film making and that's why I made the movie that is about documentary film making and what difference documentary films make.

Q: Have you ever been threatened by the Guatemalan government for your work on the genocide?

A: No I haven't. But recently Fredy Peccerelli (a forensic anthropologist) who was featured in the film, in the last three weeks his second in command received a text message that said 'We will smash you and your children's faces into grains of sand like Granito'. So it can be very dangerous, especially for the people living in Guatemala.

Q: Why did you focus so much on your previous documentary, instead of just showing the elements of the human rights case in both Guatemala and Madrid?

A: One of the key themes in Granito is the importance of human rights documentation and the effect it has had on rule of law and justice done in Guatemala and throughout Latin America. Remember the part in the film where I talk about Pinochet, the Argentine generals, and Fujimori all brought to justice because of human rights documentation?

There are three types of documentation outlined in the film: the forensic anthropologists (Fredy Peccerelli) exhuming the bones and discovering how people were killed in the genocide; the forensic archivist (Kate Doyle) declassifying secret US government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and getting Guatemalan military documents leaked to her; and me - the documentary filmmaker, thinking I was telling one story, when actually the footage filmed in 1982 has a whole different meaning today. I want Granito to be a letter to the next generation of documentary filmmakers that what you do now, can make a difference, and that the documentation, the filmic storytelling, can have an impact.



Pesha Magid studies Arabic and English Literature at Edinburgh University and will return to Scotland in the fall.

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