When Pamela Yates was starting out as a filmmaker, figuring out how she’d develop a documentary on her own to direct, she was working as a sound recordist for another production in El Salvador during the early 1980s when she was drawn to rumblings she had heard about a civil war in Guatemala where the Mayan population were systematically decimated by the Guatemalan military by the order of General Efraín Ríos Montt. While she could not yet investigate for herself, she came across the report “Guatemala: No Neutrals There,” written by America’s Watch, which later became Human Rights Watch, while doing research.
“It was really hard to get information then about this war that was going on because it was up in the indigenous Highlands,” Yates recalls. “Very few reporters were going up there, but the intrepid America’s Watch researchers went there and this report was key to my idea to go make ‘When the Mountains Tremble.’”
This weekend, it will come full circle for Yates when she presents “When the Mountains Tremble” along with “Granito” and “500 Years,” the two subsequent films she made about the genocide in Guatemala after the footage she compiled for “When the Mountains Tremble” became a crucial piece of evidence in the prosecution against General Ríos Montt, at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, taking place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center starting on June 9th. Recently christened as “The Resistance Saga,” the alternately devastating and inspiring trilogy is serving as the festival centerpiece, shown in full on June 11th accompanied by a panel comprised of some of the Mayan subjects from the films and a surely rousing performance by the singer/songwriter Sara Curruchich singing songs of resistance.
Even by the standards of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this would seem like an extraordinary undertaking, but the day-long event is a natural extension of the platform they’ve been giving films year in and year out, offering some of the biggest screens in America’s biggest city to illuminate some of the darkest corners in the world. Borders of all kinds are quickly erased at the festival where audiences may arrive as strangers coming together in the dark, but leave energized by the films themselves as well as the sense of community that emerges from the screenings where it feels like something can actually be done to affect positive change. This year, films such as Peter Nicks’ “The Force,” Adam Sobel’s “The Workers Cup,” and Erik Ljung’s “The Blood is at the Doorstep” lead a diverse and compelling lineup that covers issues ranging from the fallibility of the criminal justice system to climate change to unfair labor conditions and the ravages of war.
En route to New York from an apartment in Argentina where the Resistance Saga had just screened at the International Film Fest on Human Rights in Buenos Aires, Yates graciously took the time to talk about what makes the Human Rights Watch Film Fest so special as well as how the Resistance Saga came about and why the two will be eternally connected.
It’s so eye-opening to see how audiences may respond to the films, especially here in Argentina, [where] they have a deep connection to the Guatemalans because they both suffered through dictatorships and have had a very large and successful justice initiative to bring people to trial for crimes of the past. The Argentines have been a real model for that, so when they see “500 Years,” and they see the trial against Rios Montt in Guatemala, they really connect to it, and they’ve given us a lot of ideas about taking the film around Latin America, which is so important to us. But in the United States too, it’s been really different because with the Trump election, people have been really outraged, [asking] what can they do, so they really connect to the resistance part of the Mayan story in Guatemala. We couldn’t have known while we were making the film that American audiences would respond to that, but they really did and that response gave us the idea to do the Resistance Saga.
After each one of these films, did you actually think you’d be going back to Guatemala to make another or has it just happened that way?
I didn’t think so. [laughs] As I say in “Granito,” Guatemala wrapped its arms around my soul and never let me go in the 1980s. [After] I made “When the Mountains Tremble,” [I learned] the outtakes were going to be used as forensic evidence in the genocide case [against Rios Montt] and when you make a film, the only thing you really remember is what’s in the film, not what’s out of the film, so when you go back and revisit all the outtakes and all the choices you make, it gave me the inspiration to do “Granito.” Then I really became the nemesis for the dictator Rios Montt, so when his trial for genocide and crimes against humanity started in Guatemala, it seemed only natural that I would go to film it. The act of recording was not necessarily [intended for] a feature-length documentary, [it] was just understanding the importance of documenting human rights abuses and the trial itself for future generations. But then the trial was so dramatic and the forces unleashed were so intense, I thought, “Wow, this is going to make a really great film, so let’s follow this out into the world in Guatemala and see what develops as a result of the trial.”
How did this amazing event at the Human Rights Watch Festival come to be?
Besides “The Resistance Saga,” we’ve had three films that were [selected as] Opening Night films at the Human Rights Watch Festival – “The Reckoning” in 2009, “Granito” in 2011 and “State of Fear” in 2005, so we wanted to do something really special. We sat down with [Human Rights Watch festival director] John Biaggi and said, “Let’s together do something that neither you or we have done before.” I’m really interested in immersive cinematic events [like] “Shoah” and “Homeland Iraq.” I’m the kind of person that went to see “OJ: Made in America,” [for] seven hours and 40 minutes at the Metrograph in one sitting, and I love the kind of zen of entering the film itself when you sit in a dark theater for hour after hour after hour, so I wanted to try it with these films. I wasn’t sure it was going to work or not, but we have a really great partnership with Kickstarter and they lent us their theater in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and we watched all three of them and thought, “This is going to work.”
Collectively, when you watch the films together, did it become a different experience for you?
It was a really different experience — that it was a trajectory of historical memory over 35 years is very rare. But each film continues the story started in the previous films, so [although] each film stands alone, the totality of the experience is much deeper. One of the people in “500 Years,” Andrea Ixchíu, the young Guatemalan communicator, activist and law student was the one who really said, “Bring this to Guatemala, let’s get a small group of people together and watch all three films together” and they were really informing me because they hadn’t really seen all three films together like that about that experience and if they thought that experience would be important to bring to Guatemalans, that collaboration really informed how we are going to launch the Resistance Saga [globally]. Since then we have designed a tour with the Resistance Saga that we’re going to launch in 2018 where we’re going to visit 10 American cities in the Heartland with local activist partners – groups already working in resistance to bring this story to them and to strengthen the ties of solidarity with the Mayan resistance in Guatemala.
[Also] I’m not on this journey alone. I’m sharing this journey with the protagonists in the films about Guatemala. I think it’s really important to return to a place where a documentary filmmaker has made films, maybe not necessarily to make other films, but to definitely stay connected to the people and places, stay informed, offer solidarity, offer hope, offer companionship and the Guatemalans in turn, the people that are in our films, have offered that to me too, so I feel like it’s one of those things that together we have done. I’m not a filmmaker that comes in and leaves and doesn’t do anything else. In fact, one of the hallmarks of my films is that our company Skylight has developed a multiyear outreach and engagement campaign for each of the films, so I’ve traveled around the world to all the festivals with the people that are in the films and stayed friends with them.
For example, Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Laureate who appears in “When the Mountains Tremble,” appears in “500 Years,” and even she doesn’t have a huge role, my friendship with her and many others has informed how I tell the stories as I move through Guatemalan history. It’s been really satisfying and at times really frustrating because I see the talent and the wealth of leadership amongst Guatemalans and yet that talent and leadership has not been able to rise to the top or have real political power — or in the case of the Mayans, real political participation — to be able to change policies in Guatemala. But as a human rights defender who uses cinema as my tool, I’m a congenital optimist and feel that unless we envision the world that we want and the world that we deserve, we’ll never get there.
What has the platform of the Human Rights Watch Film Fest been like for you over the years?
It’s been key, and I think one of the reasons is because it’s such a well-respected film festival, not just to tell stories about human rights, but to tell cinematic stories about human rights. It’s also about the power of cinema to shine a light on these stories. There’s also a Human Rights Film Network now, which has been growing [to] 41 film festivals all over the world – Global North, Global South, East, West — and it’s a super-important film circuit [that] often looks to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York for its selection. I also like the festival because it’s not competitive. Personally, I’m much more involved in creating community among filmmakers rather than competing against one another, and the selection itself is the prize.
Have you been able to make some valuable connections over the years at the festival?
Yes, and the relationship with the festival often carries over into the research and the production of the next film. For example, the relationship that we forged making “State of Fear,” which is based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission [was] where we really got to be better friends and colleagues with the people at Human Rights Watch, so when we went on to make “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court,” we were able to access all of the people and the knowledge that Human Rights Watch had. They connected us to their researchers in the field where it was very hard to find that information, especially in the international criminal courts situation countries where they were investigating genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — places like the Eastern Congo or the Sudan. Having Human Rights Watch open doors for us locally was really helpful and helped keep us safe in those places.
Photo credit: Jean-Marie Simon