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Same Story, New Tools: 35 Years of Guerrilla Filmmaking and Tech Innovation

By Pamela Yates

Matilde Terraza and Pamela Yates discuss the filming of "500 Years"  with her family in Nebaj, Guatemala. (photo: Skylight Pictures)

August 2015—Guatemala City: On my iPhone are images from 800 feet looking down over tens of thousands of demonstrators on the street below, besieging the National Palace in a citizens' uprising in Guatemala City. A GoPro-mounted drone lets me capture the enormity of the anger that’s led to the largest demonstration in Guatemala's history. It will become the climax of our new film 500 Years, the final episode in our Guatemalan trilogy. But I'm actually in New York directing the shot by sharing texts, photos and overseeing the filming itself via WhatsApp. What did we ever do before the digital revolution?

May 1982—Guatemala Highlands: Tom Sigel and I are hiking at night with a squad of armed guerrillas deep in the highlands of Guatemala. Tom has a 16mm Aaton camera and I have a reel-to-reel Nagra. Our backpacks are stuffed with rolls of 16mm stock and ¼" audio tapes. What’s more, my slate was stolen in Guatemala City, so I have to tap the mic for our editor back in New York to be able to sync up picture and track.

We had entered Guatemala under false pretenses and were defying the military dictatorship by filming with the guerrillas. Our idea was to tell the story of Guatemala's civil war by documenting the entire political spectrum, with the newest, lightest cinema vérité equipment that had so recently freed documentary filmmakers to break out into the world. We filmed with the guerrillas, we filmed with the army, we filmed with businessmen, priests and an archbishop, and even with the president. We felt liberated shooting in 16mm on our cutting-edge Aaton.

Sixteen millimeter film is a beautiful, painterly medium. And this look was so important in telling the story of When the Mountains Tremble, a story of intense horror in an incredibly beautiful land. Here, a people was forced to take up arms against a brutal military dictatorship. And the 16mm look was just right in expressing the heroism and the hope in their David vs. Goliath battle. I believe that the most beautiful panorama of cinema is the geography of the human face, and it was in the filming of When the Mountains Tremble with 16mm film that this geography would become a hallmark of our Guatemalan trilogy.

While we continued to film, we were at great risk of being discovered by the military intelligence unit, known as El Archivo. The exposed rolls of film and recorded reels of tape were smuggled across the border and back to New York where our editor and producer, Peter Kinoy, developed the 16mm negative, created a work print from the original, transferred the sound to 16mm magnetic film stock and painstakingly synced picture and sound on the parallel mechanical plates of his flatbed Moviola. A quarter-century later, the Moviola flatbed and the slates necessary to mark sync would become visual touchstones in our 2011 documentary, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.

The storyteller in When the Mountains Tremble was a 22-year-old Mayan woman, a political exile named Rigoberta Menchú. It was unusual to have a young Mayan woman voice her perspective on the conflict, when the world was used to "expert" voices in documentary films. So we shot her in limbo in a studio telling her story directly to camera. This was a 16mm film release; there were no other available media. Widespread VHS wouldn't arrive for another few years, and the Internet was still an obscure academic experiment. When the Mountains Tremble played at the first Sundance Film Festival and via New Yorker Films, all around the world. Using two-inch Quad videotape, it was broadcast on PBS and abroad. The film became part of an international campaign to stop US military intervention in Central America, but despite our protests, the US continued to support the military regime in Guatemala and the slaughter continued. When the Mountains Tremble helped put Rigoberta Menchú on the world stage, and in 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first indigenous person to be so honored.

Meanwhile in Guatemala, When the Mountains Tremble was banned. It wasn’t until 20 years later that it was publicly shown in the country where it was filmed. The screening was at the Universidad de San Carlos, and the theater was mobbed. How did so many people know about a film they hadn't ever been able to see? Audience members told me that When the Mountains Tremble had been clandestinely screened thousands of times in Guatemala during the war and that the Guatemalans had cut up the film and made their own shorts to show before their meetings of the organized resistance. Later they'd also smuggled in VHS tapes of the film from El Salvador, and they'd made copies from copies from copies until you could barely even see the image.

In the audience that night was an international lawyer who came up to me afterwards and asked, "Did you keep all of your filmed outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble? Because I'm investigating a genocide case, and two of the generals I'm investigating are in your film." Indeed, we had kept all the outtakes, because we'd kept our company, Skylight Pictures, together all those years. The 16mm outtakes were stored in cardboard boxes in a huge warehouse in New Jersey. Thus began a kind of cinematic archeological dig, led by Peter Kinoy, to find everything we had filmed with the generals in 1982. And we dove into the arduous work of taking double-system 16mm film and audio tapes into the digital realm. It took seven months to rescue five hours of filmed material. And what we found surprised even us! There were inculpatory statements that we hadn't included in When the Mountains Tremble. And the revelations were so rich and so far-reaching that they became the inspiration for making a new film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.

May 2008, Madrid, Spain: The genocide case against General Ríos Montt has landed here and our crew is the first to be allowed to film in the Audiencia Nacional de España, the Spanish High Court. Gone are the 16mm days. We are now filming with a Panasonic HVX-200 on data cards, and recording sound on a digital sound recorder. We are in the middle of a shoot that would become Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, the second in our Guatemalan trilogy.

Pamela Yates (center) with the Guatemalan, American and Dutch crew during the filming of 'Granito' in the Guatemalan highlands 2010. (Photo: Dana Lixenberg)

Granito is the story of an international collaboration to build a genocide case against Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt, but it is also about the art and craft of documentary filmmaking. As Peter and I looked at the rescued 16mm footage from 1982, we realized that I was in every shot, tapping the microphone as a slate, just outside the intended frame. I was looking at myself 25 years younger. I realized that I could be a time-travelling narrator to guide this love letter to the next generation of documentary filmmakers, to share our experiences over the years and show how documentary films can have impact. We wanted to build parallel time frames in the film—the 1982 experience and the present. We used the look of the painterly 16mm film against the sharp, hi-def digital look to let people know where they were in time at each point in the story. We inserted things that only came with 16mm film—flash frames, camera rollouts, the sound of mechanical sprockets—to clue in the audience.

Telling the story in the first person gave me the possibility to explore my filmmaking stance, and helped me remember how the Mayan concept of granito had set me on my path. Granito means "tiny grain of sand." This Mayan concept is based on communal values, and says that each of us have something to contribute to positive social change. This film shows different kinds of people adding their tiny grain of sand, their granito—the courageous Guatemalan survivors, their international and local lawyers and allies, and even documentary filmmakers—as the genocide case was constructed and historical memory resurrected.

March 2013—Criminal Court, Guatemala: The genocide case in Spain was blocked, but the persistent victims and their lawyers finally found a way to start it in Guatemala. Because our filmed footage had become forensic evidence in the genocide case against General Ríos Montt, when his trial began in Guatemala, I knew I had to be there. I knew I had become the general's nemesis. With an international crew from Guatemala, Colombia and the US, we set about recording every word, from the opening gavel to the verdict, with our small Panasonic HVX-200s. We filmed close to 1,000 hours.

Being able to upload files instantly to the editorial department at Skylight back in New York meant that they could edit the highlights of this historic trial, upload them, and through the advances of the digital age, throw open the doors of the courtroom to the entire world. These periodic highlights became a widely shared Web series called Dictator in the Dock.

The meaning of decades of documentary work in Guatemala snapped into focus when Judge Yassmín Barrios ordered my unedited interview with General Ríos Montt from 1982 to be projected larger-than-life in the courtroom. In the interview the general states, "There is no repression on the part of the army. And if I don't control the army, then what am I doing here?" Which the judge took to mean that he knew that his enlisted soldiers were committing acts of genocide because he had ordered them to do so. There was a buzz in the gallery as the interview ended. Had the tide turned against the general? During the recess a reporter asked Ríos Montt if he'd remembered my 1982 interview, if he'd remembered me. He said, "I don't remember her, but now I'll never forget her." Two weeks later my photo appeared in one of Guatemala's leading newspapers, in a paid ad by an extreme right wing group under the headline "The Faces of Infamy." I was called an "enemy of the state."

Based on overwhelming evidence, General Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Ten days later, under massive pressure from the business and political elite, the Constitutional Court had the verdict vacated. While the press now wrote off the trial as a failure, I was sure it was something very different. The visceral testimonies had unleashed a battle for control of the historical narrative of Guatemala, pitting genocide deniers against those who were fighting in the courts to have it acknowledged and prosecuted. I wanted to see what the effects of the trial were, especially in the indigenous highlands where the massacres had taken place. And that was the genesis of the final film in the trilogy, 500 Years. "500 Years" is a meme that speaks to both the Spanish conquest of the Americas that began in 1492 and to the continuous indigenous resistance to that occupation.

Now I was shooting with a Sony F5 to capture images that needed to illustrate what I thought was going to be a more constructed, cerebral film—a lot of talking, a lot of deep thought about the meaning of justice. Little did I know that in a two-year period, the Guatemalan people would themselves through their actions write the most brilliant script. The trial had emboldened indigenous Mayans in the highlands, and then there were rumblings among the urban dwellers too. They became fed up with the entrenched business and political elite. As a hard-hitting exposé on government corruption was released, people took to the streets to express their discontent.

This citizen uprising took place over 100 days and I collaborated with Raul Socon, our Guatemala-based co-producer, to cover what started out as small demonstrations every Saturday afternoon. But as the revelations about corruption exposed ministers, the vice president and even the president, the discontent and protests grew. Raul is a talented producer whose sole tool is his iPhone. He exclusively communicates on WhatsApp because it's free and it's encrypted. Over months we developed a way that I could direct from New York via WhatsApp in real time with Raul and the crew in Guatemala. I'd send suggestions, questions, visual ideas and they’d reply with photos, videos and their ideas. We had hundreds of WhatsApp exchanges.

There came a point where I realized it was better that I wasn't physically in Guatemala because the Guatemalans had their unique way of documenting this pivotal historical moment in their own country. Having an American there with them in the streets would have meant a completely different dynamic in how people related to the film crew.

Many of the people I'd met in court during the Ríos Montt genocide trial and followed out into the world afterwards filming with them became leaders in this new citizen uprising. They were in the forefront building a rural indigenous and urban non-indigenous alliance to confront the government. That strengthened their roles as protagonists in 500 Years. So there I was in Brooklyn, directing drone shots as the anger of the Guatemalan people spilled out into the streets and could not be denied. The protests became so massive, the crimes of corruption so great, that the president and vice president were forced to resign, a judge sent them to jail awaiting trial, and a great victory was achieved.

January, 2017—Park City, Utah: 500 Years premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, when the theme of resistance was foremost in many Americans' minds. Five of the Mayan women protagonists, ranging in age from 29 to 70, came up from Guatemala to be with us to present the film. Together we firmed up plans to release 500 Years both theatrically and in the context of the entire Guatemalan trilogy, which we are now calling The Resistance Saga. It will be an all-day, high-profile immersive cinematic event meant to energize resistance by showing When the Mountains Tremble (1983), Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) and 500 Years.

The struggle for justice and dignity in Guatemala remains, but communication technology has changed. When we released When the Mountains Tremble in 1983, we were absolutely thrilled to have 20 16mm prints in circulation. In December 2017, 500 Years will go out on Amazon Prime to millions of people worldwide, at the exact historical moment when we can learn from the wisdom of Mayan resistance.

500 Years, along with The Resistance Saga, will premiere in US theaters on July 12 through Paladin.

Pamela Yates is a Co-Founder and Senior Creative Director of Skylight, an organization committed to producing challenging and socially relevant documentary films and digital media tools to strengthen human rights and the quest for justice.