Granito: How to Nail a Dictator Airing on PBS

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Granito: How to Nail a Dictator will be nationally broadcasted on June 28, 2012 by PBS as part of the Documentaries with a Point of View (POV) program.

In a stunning milestone for justice in Central America, a Guatemalan court recently charged former dictator Efrain Rios Montt with genocide for his brutal war against the country’s Mayan people in the 1980s — and Pamela Yates’ 1983 documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, provided key evidence for bringing the indictment. Granito: How to Nail a Dictator tells the extraordinary story of how a film, aiding a new generation of human rights activists, became a granito — a tiny grain of sand — that helped tip the scales of justice.

– Above film description taken from POV website.

For more information on the film, please read Emily Willard’s (National Security Archive) review below from last year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

“Granito” to Debut in New York at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

By: Emily Willard, The National Security Archive On June 15, 2011

On Friday night, June 17, the documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator will launch this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival with its first screening in New York City. Film makers Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy and Paco de Onis will speak afterwards with several activists featured in the film – including Guatemalans Freddy Peccerelli and Alejandra García, Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, and the National Security Archive’s own Kate Doyle. For complete event and ticket information, check here.

Granito premiered in the United States at this year’s Sundance Film festival in January, and had its first screening on the east coast in Washington, DC, when it closed the “Politics on Film” festival on May 7 (see postings here and here). The documentary features the work many Guatemalan and international human rights activists, archivists, anthropologists and attorneys who have contributed “un granito” –their grain of sand—to the nearly three-decade long struggle to bring justice to Guatemala. 

Director Pamela Yates narrates the film’s central story about the search for evidence in the Guatemala genocide case that is currently in the investigative phase in the National Court in Spain being heard under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

In 1982 Yates and her colleague Thomas Sigel went to Guatemala to film the “secret war” that was underway between the Guatemalan right wing military government and the leftist guerrilla movement. Their project resulted in the renowned documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, narrated by Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Yates and Sigel were able to take powerful footage of both sides of the conflict. Traveling deep into the mountains, they documented the guerrilla fighters and the Mayan people’s struggle to survive. Through her military connections (explained in the film), Yates was able to land an interview with General Efraín Ríos Montt, the brutal military dictator.

This is where the stories of Granito come together, and past meets present. As Yates recounts, international lawyer Almudena Bernabeu of the Center for Justice and Accountability approached the filmmaker to see if the outtakes of her interview with Ríos Montt contained incriminating evidence which could be used in the genocide case against him in the National Court in Spain. They did, and Yates went on to serve as an expert witness before Judge Santiago Pedraz in 2009, simultaneously filming and appearing in her documentary about the case. 

Bernabeu explains in the film that building the genocide case would be “one of the hardest things I will ever do as a lawyer.” To that end, she contacted a variety of experts and witnesses to testify in the Spanish courtroom:

The National Security Archive’s Senior Analyst Kate Doyle explains that in order to prove the crime of genocide, the case needs documentary evidence in addition to eyewitness testimony. Doyle walks the audience through the process of deciphering declassified US documents, and how to use them as evidence to support the genocide indictments. Guatemalan army records, smuggled out of government archives and given to Doyle, also provide essential evidence in the case. The official Guatemalan government records of the counterinsurgency operation called Plan Sofía, Doyle explains, were key to proving the criminal responsibility of senior government and military officials in the country’s genocide in its clear illustration of how the chain of command functioned during the war. [See Doyle’s first-hand account of her testimony, here]. 

Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) contributes his “granito” by leading teams to unearth mass graves and exhume unidentified bodies in a search for the disappeared. During this process, he examines the bones to determine age and sex of the victim and to collect DNA evidence. Peccerelli finds that many of the victims are children, and through examining bone fragmentation finds evidence of gun-shot wounds and extreme violence, indicating that the victims were executed. Because of his work in Guatemala, Peccerelli explains that he is under constant threat from clandestine groups that want the truth to stay buried.

Antonio Caba Caba, a massacre survivor from the Mayan village of Ilom works with his fellow community members to prepare eyewitness testimony for the trial in the Spanish National Court. Caba Caba explains that while many of his community members have been able to give testimony to investigators from the U.N. Truth Commission and the Archbishop’s office, they have never been able to give their testimony to someone who has the weight of the law behind them. Speaking before Judge Pedraz gives them this opportunity, explains Caba Caba. While giving their eyewitness testimony to Judge Pedraz in their native Mayan language, many of the older survivors are overcome with emotion, even almost 30 years after experiencing the horror. During his testimony, Caba Caba tells Judge Pedraz, “I just don’t understand what happened that day.”

A unique element of this story is that filmmaker Pamela Yates appears in almost all of the pieces of original footage from 1982 due to technical difficulties resulting from stolen equipment. The film follows the images of the younger Yates of 1982 as she taps the boom microphone to sync the film and sound rolls during the interview with Ríos Montt. During a review of the outtakes of her interview with the general, she finds an important clip which could be crucial evidence for the case.

Others featured in the film who contribute their “granito” include:

  • Gustavo Meoño Brenner – former leader of the EGP (Ejercito Guatemalteco de los Pobres) and current coordinator of the Guatemalan Historical Archives of the National Police (AHPN, Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional)
  • Almudena Bernabeu – international lawyer from the Center for Justice and Accountability, the lead lawyer in the genocide case in the Spanish National Court.
  • Pancho Francisco Soto – legal director of the Guatemalan CALDH (Centro de Acción Legal de Derechos Humanos, or Center for Legal Action on Human Rights) who coordinates with Bernabeu on the genocide case in the Guatemalan court.
  • Rigoberta Menchú Tum – Indigenous Mayan spokesperson, lead petitioner of the genocide case in Spain. She is also author of the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1992.
  • Naomi Roht-Arriaza – Former journalist based in Guatemala, now a professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and a leading scholar of international human rights law.
  • Judge Santiago Pedraz – Judge of the Spanish National Court investigating the genocide case.
  • Alejandra Garcia Montenegro, Emilia Garcia, and Nineth Montenegro.Photo by Diana Lizenberg
  • Alejandra García Montenegro – Guatemalan lawyer and daughter of the disappeared student and labor leader, Edgar Fernando García. She was the lead lawyer in the case against the police officers who abducted her father, leading to an unprecedented ruling and conviction in October 2010.

The film elegantly weaves the past with the present and tells a succinct yet multi-faceted story of the many people from different generations that have added their “granitos” to bring justice to Guatemala. It is a story of hope.

This blog was originally published on the The National Security Archive Blog “Unredacted” by Emily Willard. The National Security Archive is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.