In 1983’s When the Mountains Tremble, filmmaker Pamela Yates exposed the U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictatorship led by Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt and its role in the slaughter of almost 200,000 indigenous Mayans over the course of that country’s civil war.
In her follow-up movie Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Yates grapples with the consequences of her first film, speaks to Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights crusader Rigoberta Menchú and delves further into the atrocities committed against citizens by the dethroned despot. Yates isn’t an elegant filmmaker: The movie is erratically paced, often static and dry, and occasionally dull. But the subject matter keeps you intrigued – barely. In a way, Granito is a loosely structured legal document, an uneven but undeniably powerful condemnation of the crimes by Montt and his associates.
But a lot of Granito — too much, arguably — focuses on Yates. Since the filmmaker is exploring how her previous movie impacted real-life events, the director’s decision to weave herself into the fabric of the second film is understandable: She is a part of this story, the way Michael Moore is always a part of his. Several times, though, Granito skirts the edge of full-blown vanity project, such as scenes in which she asks former colleagues and war survivors their impressions of her.
Even in those moments, though, you understand Yates’ motivation: Her execution may be lacking, but her intent is noble. The horrors in Guatemala intensified after When the Mountains Tremble was completed, and outtakes from that documentary became instrumental in the legal case against Montt. Last week, the 86-year-old general was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to house arrest by a Guatemalan judge, becoming the first Latin American president in history to face these accusations. Few would deny that whatever their faults, Yates’ films helped considerably to help ensure the legions of dead in Guatemala would have their day in court.
Director: Pamela Yates.
Producer: Paco de Onis.
A Skylight Pictures release. Running time: 103 minutes. Strong adult themes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Opens Friday Feb. 3 in Miami-Dade: Cosford, Miami Beach Cinematheque.