Ask the Filmmakers

Arlynn in Michigan asks: I was amazed that Denese/Dominga totally lost her language, she wasn't adopted until she was 11, so the fact that she had to have an adopted North American cousin interpret her own language just staggered me. Was it culture shock as well as having her family murdered? Is she now relearning her own language? Language is such a part of a person, it seems almost frightening that her native language could be lost like that.

Patricia Flynn:
Dear Arlynn,

Many people find it hard to understand how Denese lost her language, and it is something that she herself mourns. She grew up speaking the Achi language, one of the 23 Mayan languages. When she was brought down from the mountains to the convent in Rabinal, the nuns who cared for and protected her knew that her Mayan identity put her at risk, since soldiers were looking for survivors of the villages that had been targeted. The Guatemalan military considered even Mayan children "dangerous" since, according to the United Nations report on the violence, their intent was to "destroy" the culture. (That was the basis of the conclusion that "genocide" was committed). So in these traumatic circumstances, Denese had to learn Spanish, to stop speaking her native tongue, and even to stop using traditional Mayan dress. The same was true when she was brought to the orphanage in Guatemala City. Then just a year later she was brought to the States and suddenly had to learn English and become American -- another difficult transition. So all these circumstances contributed to her losing her Achi. She hopes to have the chance to re-learn her native tongue by spending more time with her relatives in the future. It was Denese's lucky fate that her adoptive cousin was Mary Purvis, who as the daughter of missionaries had spent her childhood in an Indian village in Michoacan, Mexico speaking Spanish. That amazing coincidence allowed Mary to become Denese's interpreter and guide.

Paul in Massachusetts asks: Here's a broad question... What were the deepest editorial and artistic challenges you had to address in making the film?

Dear Paul,

One of the biggest editorial challenges was condensing the history of the war, U.S. involvement, and the details of how and why the massacres took place down to the bare essentials. That was necessary partly for reasons of space, but also because we didn't want the treatment of those historical subjects to interfere with the emotional arc of the film, which was Denese's personal journey. It was always a difficult choice since our ultimate goal was to inform and educate the film's audience about this little-known war, its perpetrators and its aftermath. For example, we were not able to fully explain that many of the massacres, including the one at Rio Negro, were carried out by civilian members of the paramilitary groups known as "civil patrols," which all able-bodied men were forced by the Guatemalan army to join. If these civilians did not carry out the army's orders, including killing men, women and children labeled "subversive," they themselves suffered grave consequences. Our hope is that through this website viewers will be able to explore more deeply some of these issues and inform themselves in greater depth about the realities behind Denese's story.

Artistically it was also a challenge to find a style that would seamlessly weave the historical sections into Denese's personal narrative. You can read more of our thoughts on that in the Production Journal. And below I also discuss how we handled another artistic dilemma: how to depict the events Denese experienced and witnessed as a nine-year-old child.

Jeanette in California asks: How did Dominga wind up in Iowa? It was briefly mentioned that she found her aunts and cousins (where?) after 16 days of walking, and that one of the cousins took her to a convent. I assume then that the nuns at the convent adopted her out to American citizens? Was this a common practice and are there many other Guatemalans who have a similar history? I also wonder if Dominga's family of aunts (and presumably uncles) and cousins knew that she would be adopted if she was brought to the convent. The family was so excited and moved to see her again, and had stated that they had looked for her for years. I'm very curious as to why they were unable to locate her, and why (presuming they knew she would be sent away) they did not keep her in the village with them. I'm also very curious about Dominga's adoptive mother. How did she become involved (or was she) in the Guatemalan refugee cause?

Mary Jo McConahay: Thanks so much for your interest. I'll try to answer your points one by one.

After the massacre, Dominga found her Guatemalan relatives where they were all hiding from the army -- in the forest.

There are many Guatemalans who have a history of being adopted by foreigners during the war, or more unfortunately, being taken into the families of those who perpetrated the crimes. Sometimes a convent or shelter allowed adoptions. Remember, these kids were separated from families who were often presumed dead. The survivors could hardly feed themselves, and when a chance arose for orphans to be delivered to some kind of shelter, they sometimes took advantage of it -- there was a great risk that the orphans and others too might die together. Once the children were sent out to shelters, communication was pretty impossible. The way to towns was dangerous and not all made it. Those who administered the shelters or convents did not give information about them freely because the children were targets of violence, and they could not be sure who was who. In Dominga's case, her Guatemalan family lost track of her when she was taken out of the mountains into the convent.

Dominga wound up in Iowa because the couple who adopted her at age 11 from Guatemala City was from Iowa. Her adoptive mother learned there might be children to adopt in Guatemala because she knew someone who had adopted there. She was not involved in the refugee issue.

Charlie in California asks: Hi, I thought your film was very powerful. I think you balanced the personal and political very well. It seemed that you utilized the re-enactment one time to show how Dominga escaped. Did you consider doing more re-enactments? Did you shoot that on location? How do you know how to make it work, and when it's enough?

Dear Charlie,

Thank you for your comments and your interest in how the reenactments were created. Reenactments are not always successful in my opinion, and I felt it was critical that we find just the right style, since it was essential to convey a visual image of some of the key moments of Dominga's terrible memories. In fact we used reenactments at several points in the film. One you mention -- the scene depicting the day the soldiers captured Denese's mother and she escaped with her baby sister. A continuation of that sequence comes later when Denese recalls running with her sister in the mountains, and finally burying the baby. I felt these memory sequences had to convey a haunting quality, and also to capture the pain and terror of those moments in a style that set them apart from the rest of the film. Our director of photography had used a technique in another film that seemed just right for our recreations: shooting with a mini DV (digital camera) at eight frames per second instead of the usual 30 frames. That is what creates the moody, dreamy effect. The other recreations were shot with the same Beta SP camera used in the rest of the film. One is the scene before the opening title when the young Dominga is walking along the river waiting for her father to return the night he died. Another is the sequence when Denese recalls her happy memories of fishing with her father in Rio Negro. All of the recreations were shot on location in Guatemala using as actors members of the Achi community, who were so generously cooperative in working with us.

Anita in New York asks: What can I do to help? I teach in the local colleges and always teach of these genocides. It amazed me how many Americans have no idea of what has happened to so many. Enough!

Veda in Illinois asks: I was born in Guatemala and have been living in the U.S. for over 12 years. I was never really aware of what the Indigenous community went through in Guatemala until I took a Latin American studies class at the University of Chicago and after viewing your film on channel 11. As a Guatemalan myself, how can I help?

McConahay: I think the best way to "help" is to keep yourself informed on what is going on in Guatemala, and be the prime person in your community, church, school, book club, or any other group to give information to others. This means being engaged with sources of information available on the internet, reading books, attending gatherings of Guatemalans, for instance. If you can get on English-language (or Spanish, if you speak it) lists such as that of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (non-government) or NISGUA or Rights Action (see resources), you can receive as many updates as you have time for, by mail or email. Find out who at your local radio, TV, newspapers or other venues covers immigration, social issues, politics or Latin America, and sparingly (you don't want to overwhelm them) present packets of information about big events -- such as the upcoming elections. Find out who is coming to town from Guatemala and set up an informal coffee meeting with others, or set up a lecture. The more you become involved, the more you will find ways to become involved. This website is also a good place to start.

Glenn in Virginia asks: Was Dominga a Quiche, an Ixil, or a member of some other group?

McConahay: Dominga was Achi Maya.

David in Louisiana asks: I was taken by the beauty of the landscape and of the Mayan people. Are there any programs currently being administered by the Guatemalan government to assist the indigenous people in developing ecotourism?

McConahay: There is much tourism in Guatemala but few indigenous run their own programs for tourists. Many produce arts and crafts which are sold to middlemen. There are some cooperatives -- you could go on the internet to find them (peoplink is one) but mostly it is others who benefit from tourism in Guatemala, not the Maya Indians.

Henry in Maryland asks: I noticed armed soldiers accompanied the group. Were you frightened? Did you visit any other locations in Guatemala?

McConahay: Many of us on the team had traveled widely in Guatemala. From time to time there was a feeling of risk, but the Maya who live in Guatemala and work on justice issues are much more at risk than a foreign film team. Members of the forensic team, the Maya spiritual guide in the film, as well as members of the Mayan community have all received threats for their activities. Shortly before we filmed Father Roberto Avalos, he received a threat: a dead dog hung from his door.

Seira asks: I'm very interested in purchasing the score to Discovering Dominga... is it possible and how? As a Guatemalan myself, I enjoyed watching the film. The music was perfect.

Dear Seira,

We are very glad you liked the music. We felt it was important to create a soundtrack that captured both Guatemala and Iowa, and moved seamlessly from one to the other. Our composer, Todd Boekelheide, did a wonderful job at that. He worked with a group of musicologists and musicians called the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble in the recording phase to achieve an authentic sound. He writes about his experience in writing and recording the score in the Production Journal. We suggest that you contact him with your interest in purchasing the soundtrack -- he is currently looking into producing a CD of it. His website is The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble also has a website,, where you can find out how to order another CD they released with music from colonial Guatemala.

John in Pennsylvania asks: I'm a 56-year-old photographer turned filmmaker who has photographed in Guatemala & El Salvador (at the El Mozote exhumation site etc). Your film is one of the best things I've seen to present the real history of Guatemala to Americans, thanks, I think, to the Iowa context. A wonderful & moving film. My question is nuts'n'bolts. What were you shooting with? How much crew did you travel with? Any trouble getting camera & crew into Guatemala?

Dear John,

Thanks for expressing your appreciation for the film. We shot the film in Beta SP, except for the recreations described above (which were shot in mini-DV). Our crew in Guatemala consisted of our Director of Photography, Vicente Franco, and our sound recordist, Matty Nematollahi. We also had a production assistant on location in Guatemala, and two drivers who also gave us help with logistics. We had no difficulty getting into Guatemala, and did not require any special permissions, though of course we had to submit the routine list of the equipment we were bringing into the country to Guatemalan customs officials. In an amazing coincidence, we finished our last day of shooting in Guatemala on September 11, 2001, and just as we finished we found out that just hours before the World Trade Center had been attacked. With U.S. borders closed, we were not able to leave Guatemala to return home for five days.

To contact the filmmakers directly, email Jaguar House Film at