The most widespread genocide in the recent history of the Americas — the late 1970s/early 1980s wipeout of thousands of Maya people in Guatemala — remains a case in which the perpetrators have never been brought to justice, and filmmaker Pamela Yates means to right that wrong in her latest docu, “Granito.” As well-intended as it is artless, this follow-up to Yates’ landmark 1984 pic on Guatemala’s civil war, “When the Mountains Tremble,” reps a minor footnote that will be of most interest to activists and likely ignored by most docu-oriented distribs.
Certainly, Yates’ earlier film played a central role in awakening interest in the genocide; no film of the period more vividly and powerfully captured both sides in the country’s battle between a right-wing military junta (led by a chain of ruthless general-dictators, most notoriously Gen. Efrain Rios Montt) and a rebel force combining rural folks, urban intelligentsia and the indigenous Maya.
Given this legacy, “Granito,” co-written by Yates, editor Peter Kinoy and producer Paco de Onis, is doubly disappointing for how dull and conventional it is. “I had no idea that I was filming genocide,” Yates states in the pic’s annoyingly studied narration, but it’s this visual record that now serves as potentially vital evidence in a case being tried in Spanish court (the same one that convicted Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet of crimes against humanity).
Spurred by prosecuting attorney Almudena Bernabeu, Yates proceeds to dig through cans of footage that never made the final cut of “Mountains” in order to see if she had recorded any acknowledgements of a policy of eradication of the Maya people in her footage of defendants Rios Montt and Gen. Lucas Garcia. Such statements, combined with eyewitness testimony of the Army’s war crimes, could be enough to put the generals behind bars.
The film’s most interesting element is this archaeological dig, as it were, into the footage, with the investigation divided into scenes lensed in Yates’ editing suite and the found footage presented in extended clips. But given the upfront use of film as visual evidence, the detective story lacks cinematic style and is erratically packed with asides and detours, including mini-profiles of several Guatemalans pursuing human-rights work.
The docu appears designed as a fundraising tool directed at American liberal activists rather than a general public that may have little sense or memory of the 1980s strife. An epilogue on recent developments sounds a note of hope that some prosecutions may succeed.
Vid-shot pic’s flat look stands in stark contrast with the vibrant, muscular 16mm look of “Mountains.” Title refers to the Spanish phrase popularly used in the Guatemalan rebel movement, “granito de arena,” or “grain of sand,” symbolizing that each person is just one part in a greater collective effort to change society.