PBS Premiere: June 28, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is Granito about?

Pamela Yates: In 1982, I went to Guatemala to make one of our first feature length documentaries, called When the Mountains Tremble, and I didn't know I was filming was in the middle of a genocide at that time. When the Mountains Tremble was banned in Guatemala during the time of the war and we weren't able to show it there at all.

Peter and I went there in 2003 for the first public showing of When the Mountains Tremble and when we got there people told us that actually the film had been shown thousands of times clandestinely. In the audience that night was an international lawyer who came up to us afterwards and asked if we had kept all of the outtakes from the film because she was very interested in being able to use it as forensic evidence in a genocide case. We cooperated and looked through all of the filmed outtakes and what we found was truly surprising — even to us. Because when you make a film, one of the things that you remember is what you put in the film, but you forget what you took out of the film.

POV: At what point did you realize, I have to tell this story in the first person?

Pamela Yates: It was at the point where we decided that the film could actually have a whole other level than just telling the story about the court case. We said, why don't we try to make this film about the experiences we've had as documentary filmmakers? Why don't we make it so that it's a love letter to the next generation of human rights activists and documentary filmmakers? What do we have to impart to them? How can we help them and how can we encourage them to really emerge? At that point we thought the only way to do that is if I actually talk about the film and filmmaking while I'm telling the story.

POV: What does it mean to you as filmmakers for your work to be used in this different environment for a different purpose? Or is it part of the same?

Pamela Yates: It's very satisfying. The genocide case actually began in Guatemala — Guatemalans coming together to talk about their shared experience, especially families of victims. The more they talked and the more they presented evidence, it seemed, the less they were being listened to. They decided, led my Rigoberta Menchú, to go to the Spanish National Court and plead their case under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Spanish National Court is where Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, had been indicted. And so they felt fairly certain that was a a good precedent set. The Spanish National Court did accept the case and they worked very hard on the case with both Guatemalans and a team of international lawyers. In trying that case, one of the people was General Ríos Montt, who was indicted in a Spanish National Court case. He was very much a character in When The Mountains Tremble and we had a lot of material with him. We had his whole interview, both in film and the transcript.

We thought that while we were making Granito that the film was going to have a happy ending — and the Spanish National Court, the judges and the prosecutors would prevail, and the generals would be indicted for genocide, and they would be extradited to Spain and they'd stand trial. But, what actually happened was that the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, their Supreme Court, denied the extradition of all the people indicted. And, so, the Spanish National Court case was stalled. But, the Guatemalan Attorney General and the judges decided to take up the cases, and now they're being tried in Guatemala. In fact, in the last year and six months, more people have been convicted and indicted and more people are in jail for what happened in the 1980s during the genocide than in the previous 30 years.

Paco de Onís: So much has changed in terms of cases for human rights abuses, and Latin America has led the way with Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru — [Alberto] Fujimori is in prison. Thirty years ago there really was no international law to speak of, at least criminal law, so the idea of a court of universral jurisdiction like the Spanish National Court really came to the attention of people with the Pinochet case. When When the Mountains Tremble was made, those things just weren't factors. They weren't on anyone's mind

Peter Kinoy: It's really been a struggle in Guatemala. For many years, people denied that these massacres ever happened in the countryside. Now, when Ríos Montt makes his defense, he can't deny that. He's not denying that the massacres took place. He's only saying that, "Oh, I was in the city. I was president. I didnt have anything to do that." When we were able to come up with a little clip of film from the outtakes that says, "Oh yes, I'm totally in charge of the army. If I wasn't in charge of the army, what would I be doing here?" When he says that, and when the Guatemalans hear that in the film, you can hear the murmur throughout the audience, "Yes, yes, that is what happened."

POV: So that clip was not in the original film. That clip was in the outtakes you discovered?

Pamela Yates: It was not in the original film. When we filmed it, General Ríos Montt was at the height of his power. He was very arrogant. It was hard to imagine that he would ever not be a wealthy and powerful man. Probably we also didn't know enough about law at that time to understand the liability theory in the chain of command of authority, but now, all these years later, and making many films about the quest for justice, we immediately recognized it as a very important piece of film.

POV: What is a granito?

Paco de Onís: Granito comes from the Spanish saying granito de arena which means 'grain of sand.' It's a Maya philosophy of collective change, that everybody has their own bit to put in. Everybody has their tiny grain of sand to add to social change

POV: So the individual action helps forge collective change.

Paco de Onís: Exactly.

Pamela Yates: There are many people in the film who have this incredible twist of fate that has brought us together. We both shared lives either together or not together in the 1980s, but the making of Granito has brought us back together.

One of the amazing characters in the film is Naomi Roht-Arriaza. She was my liaison to the guerillas when making When the Mountains Tremble. I couldn't get in touch with the guerillas. I couldn't get them to respond. I couldn't get them to agree to take me on a trip. And when I found her she became a liaison to them and the finally agreed to let us go. And she came with us. Fast forward 25-plus years, and she's now a very well-known international lawyer and on the international law team to bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice, so I re-met her in that capacity.

POV: Pam, at one point during your narration you refer to 30 years ago the world seeming like a simpler place. How has that evolved, how has that changed over the past 30 years?

Pamela Yates:When we went to make When the Mountains Tremble, we were sure that the Guatemalan guerilla movement would prevail over the military dictatorship, because that was happening throughout Central America. But it wasn't true. Having to deal with the defeat makes you think very long and hard about what happened, and was it worth it, and would you do it again? It doesn't mean that you stop believing in things, or you don't have ideas or you don't show a way forward, or you can't imagine the world to be a different place, or you don't work to make it that place. But it does mean that you come at it with a much more complex set of ideas. I think those complex set of ideas has grown at the same time as our filmmaking skill.

Paco de Onís: I think it's fascinating how the characters in Granito they each have their own arc, and in fact, many of the characters, including Pam, were trying to make change 25 years ago, and they re-appear now in the present in different guises that you could not have imagined 30 years ago, still finding ways to affect that same change. In a sense, how to nail that dictator, is what is boils down to, and the way they've evolved their methods over 30 years and re-appeared and re-invented themselves in some ways, but still at the core, is that same change they want to affect.

POV: How do you have a political opinion that is you know part of your narrative and point of view, but remain open to a journey and an investigation? How do you build that into your process?

Paco de Onís: Speaking for myself I would say that you often enter a film without deep knowledge of the subject. I can say that about all the films we've made. As you go on the journey, you learn more and more about that subject, say the work of the Truth Commission in Peru, for example. I find that my opinions really do get affected and evolve along with what we learn along the way.

Peter Kinoy: And then the way that we structure the films is that we try to take the audience along on the same journey of discovery that we have been on in terms of investigating the subject matter and finding the people, but we do it in a way that the audience is experiencing these new things as they come up in the film and feel like they are discovering it for themselves. This has guided the narrative process that we take in the structuring of a documentary film.

POV: Can you talk about your role as filmmakers, as political activists? How those things work together? Or separate? Or how do you see your role as storytellers?

Peter Kinoy: I've always been very concerned about how progress happens in society. At the same time, I've always been involved with art. I love the idea of expression. I found in editing the perfect synthesis of my desire to change the world politically with my desire to be able to express myself artistically. When I get in the edit room and Pam, in the field, has produced this incredible material, I feel like a kid opening packages at Christmastime, and before me stands the possibility of shaping some incredible story. And I see the possibilities as shaping the story that can really affect people. It can affect them emotionally. It can also affect them subconsciously, because of the beauty of the images. And, it can affect them intellectually.

POV: Pam, where do you sit in terms of that intersection between art and politics?

Pamela Yates: I feel very privileged to have come of age as a filmmaker in parallel with the growth of the human rights movement worldwide. That movement has really inspired me I've helped that movement grow, and I also feel that the movement has given us ideas for films that we might want to do. I don't know really where the filmmaker ends and the activist begins, because it's all rolled up together for me.

Paco de Onís: A lot of times people have become empowered in the process of being in our films. I think of Rigoberta [Menchú] for example — she was an activist to begin with, but she said one thing to us about a year ago at Sundance at a dinner, which really moved me. She said, "When the Mountains Tremble saved my life." I said, "What do you mean, 'It saved your life?'" She said, "Yes, because it gave me a high profile, it put me out there in the world and it made it harder for my enemies to think of killing me, because the costs, the political costs would be that much higher."

I often think about the role that film can play in human rights, giving voice to people who normally don't have a voice out there in public. It's not that we're responsible for their empowerment, but we contribute to it. We certainly give them a platform, which can go around the world, which many of our films have.

Pamela Yates: It's funny because so many people think that politics or activism pollutes art and I'm not really sure why, because we wouldn't be asking the same question of a lawyer who decided to focus on human rights law. Are they more of a lawyer, or are they more of a human rights activist? Well they're really both. And we are both, and our artistry has grown because of the human rights movement and everything that we've learned from it, everything that it's taught us, and all of our intersections and interactions with it.

Paco de Onís: The idea that politics pollutes art is outrageous to me. What about Goya? What about Picasso's Guernica? And on and on and on. The idea that politics and art shouldn't mix is completely anathema to me. You don't have to be political. If you want to be, that doesn't make your art any less art. In my mind it enhances it. But, everybody has his own opinion.