The Impact Interview Series is a collaboration between WITNESS and BritDocs who produce and host the Impact Awards for independent documentaries. Read more about the Award and this year’s five winning films. 

Granito is the first in our series of interviews featuring the filmmaking teams behind the the five winners of the 2014 BritDoc Impact Award for documentaries. But it is not the first time we’ve discussed the film on the WITNESS blog: we previously featured Granito in our periodic series that looks at successful examples of film and video in advocacy. And we named it to a list of 20 Powerful Moments in Human Rights Video (and Film).

Granito is an investigation into how archival footage from Pamela Yates’ 1983 film When the Mountains Tremble provided evidence of genocide committed by Guatemala’s former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt. The following is an interview I conducted with her via email. To read more about how Granito created impact in and outside of Guatemala, read the BritDoc Impact Report. Also check out the links below the interview to learn more and connect with Pamela and her team.

Sarah S. Kerr: What was your process in choosing to tell this specific story about documentary film and the trial of General Ríos Montt?

Pamela Yates: I was contacted by an international attorney investigating a genocide case, because two of the generals she was investigating were in my 1982 film When the Mountains Tremble. She asked me to search through all my film outtakes to see if there was forensic evidence that could be of use in the case. And when we dug into our archives, what we found in the old long forgotten outtakes was astonishing. This discovery became the inspiration for Granito. Peter Kinoy, Paco de Onís and I also wanted to share our experiences – encapsulated in this story – of what it means to be a human rights defender and a committed documentary filmmaker, so we wove the stories together.

How were you thinking about impact during planning and pre-production? Did your thinking around impact evolve throughout the project? If so, how?

Building diverse audiences and creating impact has always been part of my DNA. In each film we build on the experiences of our other films and try to improve on our engagement and reach. In Granito the aim was to have the documentary film material contribute to convicting a genocidaire by asserting his command responsibility. But I also wanted to show different paths to becoming a human rights defender so that each person can consider, “What is my ‘granito’, my ‘tiny grain of sand’ that I can contribute to positive social change?”

What impact has the film had since its release? Is there one type of impact that you are most proud of?

Granito served as key evidence in the Ríos Montt genocide trial in Guatemala in 2013.

Ríos Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison. But the business and political elite of Guatemala had the verdict overturned on a procedural issue – not on the evidence itself, and he is currently under house arrest awaiting a retrial. But the quest for justice is in and of itself a form of justice, and the story of Granito leading to Ríos Montt’s trial emboldened indigenous communities across Guatemala to peacefully resist the extractive industries that are aggressively taking over communal lands and poisoning the environment.

PamelaYates in Guatemala,1982 Photo by Newton Thomas Sigel
Pamela Yates in Guatemala,1982 Photo by Newton Thomas Sigel

If there is one person that you hope sits down to watch this film today, who would that be? And why?  

I’d like any Guatemalan under the age of 30 who didn’t live through the violence, who didn’t experience the genocide of the 1980s to see Granito, especially Maya youth. The genocide is not taught in high schools nor colleges in Guatemala, so Granito is becoming part of the recuperation of historical memory.  Without knowing what really happened, it’s impossible to be engaged politically, and create a truly multilingual, multicultural country.

What has been the most common viewer reactions to the film? Have there been any interesting surprise reactions?

It’s been heartening to see that most people leave the cinema asking, “How can I contribute to human rights and the quest for justice?” And to see their realization that that it takes a lifetime commitment to create change has been satisfying. I’ve been surprised by the extremely emotional reaction to the film and that people feel empowered by the courageous Guatemalans they meet. They see Granito as an optimistic film that shows a way forward.

What lessons about impact have you learned from this project that you incorporate into future projects?

We’ve learned how to expand our media ecosystem, led by the flagship feature-length documentary, we created a companion digital project, Maya language versions of Granito, short films and even a 12 part radio series using the film’s soundtrack to reach parts of Guatemala where radio rules. The Ríos Montt trial and how it has changed Guatemala forever inspired a new film, “500 Years” now in production, the third in the Guatemalan trilogy. We realized during the filming of the trial that this was the first time in the history of the Americas that the genocide of indigenous peoples had been put on trial, so our new film will tell the story of the powerful effects of that trial in Guatemala and beyond.

Learn more

  • Take a look at the Granito website for access to trailers, educational materials and the radio series.
  • Watch select episodes from the series of 23 short films “Dictator in the Dock” which chronicle the Ríos Montt trial in spring 2013. Additional materials also available for educators.
  • Connect with Pamela Yates and her team on Twitter @skylightpix, @pameladyates and Facebook

Featured image: Military occupation of the Guatemalan highlands, 1982 by Jean-Marie Simon, courtesy Skylight Pictures. The 1998 Truth Commission concluded that the Guatemalan Army committed genocide against the Mayan population. 

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