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Documenting Rios Montt

Melanie Sevcenko, Guatemala City /al
May 22, 2013

Exclusive interview material gathered by Pamela Yates was used as evidence in the trial against Efrain Rios Montt. The US filmmaker has been documenting the story of the former Guatemalan dictator for 30 years.

Pamela Yates in her studio in New York, USA (Photo: Dana Lixemburg) via: DW/Andre Leslie "Skylight Pictures allows DW.DE to use and reuse the photos on their DW.DE website, as long as the photos are used in relation Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, Peter Kinoy and/or to Skylight's work."
Image: Dana Lixemburg/Skylight Pictures

Documentary director Pamela Yates is clearly moved as she describes the moment earlier this month when former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of killing 1,771 Ixil Mayans during Guatemala's brutal civil war in 1982.

"The judge had asked everyone to be quiet and tranquil," Yates recalled. "But as soon as people were able to express their emotions, a huge cheer and a chant of 'Justice! Justice!' went out across the courtroom."

Since then, the country's top court has overturned the ruling due to legal technicalities and ordered a retrial. Still, the landmark case marks the first genocide proceedings against a former head of state ever held in a court in Guatemala. And, Pamela Yates played a crucial role in helping get the case to trial.

Jose Efrain Rios Montt speaks during his trial on charges of genocide committed during his regime (Photo: Johan Ordoneza)
The former dictator's initial jail sentence of 80 years has been overturnedImage: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the early 1980s, Yates was a young sound engineer working on news reports in El Salvador. It was then that she first heard about the ongoing civil war in Guatemala and took a trip to the country ahead of domestic elections.

"Really, I went to Guatemala because I knew about the US role there in overthrowing the democratically elected government in 1954. And I knew that the successive military dictatorships had resulted from that overthrow," she told DW.

"I felt responsible as an American citizen. I thought, if I could only tell the story of what was happening in Guatemala it could help stop the violence."

Inspiring locals

Yates made her first film, called "When the Mountains Tremble," at the height of the Guatemalan army's persecution of the Mayan people in 1982. Some 200,000 of them are believed to have been killed between 1982 and 1983 while Rios Montt was in office. They were suspected of providing shelter to rebels in Guatemala's civil war.

Although it was shown around the world, the film was banned in Guatemala for over 20 years. It wasn't until 2003 that the first public screening was held in the country, and Yates was there to witness it. 

"When I got there, people told me that even though the film was banned, they had still watched it thousands of times clandestinely during the war," Yates explained. "Every single meeting they would start with the film, or a part of the film."

"When the Mountains Tremble" describes the struggle of the largely Mayan peasantry in Guatemala against a history of state and foreign oppression and is centered on the experiences of Rigoberta Menchu, who later was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

"Granito" cast members with Pamela Yates in Imol, Guatemala
Yates with cast members of 'Granito: How to Nail a Dictator'Image: Dana Lixemburg/Skylight Pictures

After its Guatemalan premiere in 2003, Yates decided to make a second film on the subject, "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator," which ended with the indictment of Rios Montt, in Guatemala in January 2013.

The film included an interview that Yates did with Rios Montt in 1982, an outtake from "When the Mountains Tremble." It was used as principle evidence in the summing up for the prosecution, and "super satisfying" to Yates.

Exclusive interview

The footage shows Rios Montt during his time as president, admitting to being in direct command of troops who were killing Mayans. That was something his defense team had hoped to disprove in the case against him.

Yates says she never imagined her interview with Rios Montt would play such an influential role in one of the most high profile trials in Latin American history.

"I don't think Rios Montt knew either," she said. "He was at the height of his power and arrogance. That's what was so powerful about showing this material in court."

"When he was asked in court whether he remembers doing this interview, he said, 'No I don't remember doing it.' Now, I'm sure he'll never forget that he did it."

Pamela Yates attending the trial of Rios Montt (Photo: Saul Martinez)
Pamela Yates attended the proceedings aganist Rios Montt in Guatemala CityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One more film to come

The final film in Yates's Guatemalan trilogy will tell the story of Montt's current trial on charges of genocide, Yates says.

"My first idea was that it's so important for somebody to document every single aspect of this case in the courtroom, so that was the starting point."

Since the trial began, Yates and her crew have been releasing short films of three to five minutes online. The films offer glimpses into the courtroom and the historic court case. Irrespective of the outcome of the retrial, Yates says this film is her destiny. 

"Guatemala wrapped its arms around my soul and never let me go. It's a special country with special people," Yates said. "Now, I feel like my destiny and their destiny is intertwined."

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