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Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

In her 1983 documentary When the Mountains Tremble, Pamela Yates followed the struggle of Guatemalan Maya guerrillas against the genocidal military junta headed by General Jose Efrain Rios Montt and backed by the Reagan administration. Her new film Granito interweaves the stories of survivors and activists whose lives connect through their shared histories and their mission to bring Montt to justice for genocide. Part political exposé, part courtroom drama, part personal quest, this meditative film both documents and participates in a journey to sift through the past to reshape the future.

Yates’s task here, combing through the outtakes of Mountains for evidence, echoes the scenes documenting the ongoing excavation of the remains of the disappeared. She discovers an interview in which the brash Montt of 1982 seems almost eager to establish the criteria needed to charge him in 2010; chillingly, he boasts of his personal power. Like a medium, Yates conjures this ghost to testify against his future self. Granito reveals how shifting contexts can alter the meaning of an apparently obdurate piece of history. When Yates examines her own footage with 28 years of hindsight, it’s imbued with new registers of meaning that reshape both memory and history.

The film’s self-awareness as a project under construction makes us feel more, not less, involved in the story. The self-reflexive elements reinforce one of the film’s themes: Our immersion in history is always mediated by perspective. The contrast between the raw, robust, 16-millimeter Mountains and the cooler, cleaner video Granito works metaphorically to unveil how the way we look at the world changes what we see.

Granito surges, unexpectedly, with a persistent infusion of hope and optimism. But hope—and faith in the Maya concept of collective change expressed in the title—is the engine of this film. Justice doesn’t roll down like waters; it rises up like granito de arena, tiny grains of sand. This winter, Rios Montt was charged with genocide and stripped of amnesty. He will stand trial. In a film spurred by the silencing of an entire people, by the erasure of their history, the recuperation of the power to tell is as important as what is being told. The disappeared are no longer silent; Yates and her colleagues reinscribe their voices in memory.

Granito will be screened at 7 pm on Thursday. March 29, at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center as part of the International Women’s Film Festival. Filmmaker Pamela Yates will be present for the screening, and is offering a free class on human rights activism and documentary filmmaking on Friday, 10 am-noon, 112 Center for the Arts at U.B.

Watch the trailer for Granito: How To Nail a Dictator

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