Opening at the IFC Center in NY Today, Pamela Yates’s “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” is an ambivalent but powerful documentary by the same woman who directed “When the Mountains Tremble” in 1982. That film about Guatemala’s guerrilla struggle that featured Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony is essential viewing for those wanting to understand the Central American revolutions of the 1980s, especially when it is watched in tandem with Susan Meiselas’s “Pictures from a Revolution”. (“When the Mountains Tremble” can be seen on Youtube just below, while Meiselas’s film is available on Netflix, including a streaming version.)
While not a “repentant” work, there is a general sense of dismay in Yates’s latest film that can be attributed to the terrible genocidal toll taken on the Guatemalan people in the 1980s and the ability of the top military brass to remain off the hook until now, General Rios Montt in particular.
The documentary is focused on the struggle of the survivors of the massacres to get justice, particularly from the Spanish judiciary that has played a role in indicting Chile’s Pinochet. Much of the film is set in a courtroom where testimony is presented against the murderers in uniform who dare not leave Guatemala for fear of being arrested like Pinochet.
Pamela Yates becomes a key witness to the prosecution, at least through the medium of her film and her outtakes that include damning admissions from different military men, including Rios Montt who tells the young film-maker in 1982 that he “controls everything”, in clear contradiction to the defense subsequently mounted that out-of-control troops—a la Lieutenant Calley—were responsible.
As anybody familiar with Guatemala’s recent history can tell you, the same problems that provoked an armed struggle still exist. Landlords still own nearly all the land and the government is ill-disposed to challenging them. Even with the election of “reformist” politicians, the tight control over the army and police is wielded by the rich who would likely resort to genocide if their rule was threatened.
While the film is not agitprop (how could it be under the circumstances?), it is essential viewing for those trying to make sense of what happened in the 1980s when President Reagan gave military and political support to the worst gang of murderers seen in a generation. It is difficult to watch the grinning General Rios Montt without shouting out in anger against the movie screen. The only consolation is knowing that film-makers of conscience like Pamela Yates and the Mayan people of Guatemala will not rest until he receives justice.