In 1984, director Pamela Yates’s When the Mountains Tremble played at the first Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently released to some acclaim, and it’s not hard to understand why the film stirred those who saw it. When the Mountains Tremble is crudely made and obviously shot on the fly, but that only amplifies its rage and potency. The film is a direct, nearly first-person documentation of a civil war in Guatemala between guerrilla revolutionaries and the U.S.-funded military. Yates, in her 20s at the time, talked her way into filming guerrilla factions camping out in the woods, tagging along on classified military operations that were essentially committed to wiping out the guerrillas. As a result, When the Mountains Tremble is a disconcertingly intimate record of an atrocity—which would claim over 200,000 lives—that was playing out right under the rest of the world’s presumably disinterested noses.
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is a self-reflexive quasi-sequel to When the Mountains Tremble. A few years ago, Yates’s earlier film was used as evidence to try a number of key players in what was eventually determined to be genocide—including generals Yates had directly interviewed, such as Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García and Efraín Ríos Montt—for war crimes in a Spanish court seeking extradition. Granito follows Yates as she speaks with researchers and attorneys involved in the attempted trail and reminisces with victims’ family members and survivors including, most famously, Rigoberta Menchú, who won a Nobel Peace Prize since appearing in When the Mountains Tremble. The new documentary, though, is really concerned with Yates’s own feelings of guilt over what she perceives as the futility of her past actions, including leaving potentially damning evidence on the cutting room floor while editing When the Mountains Tremble.
The sloppiness of the filmmaking worked in When the Mountains Tremble, as it was an early feature that captured a naïve youth’s unlikely brush with the complexities of hauntingly casual government evil. But that sloppiness doesn’t suit Granito, which should be concise, complicated, and elegant. The new film is still pitted as a simple good-versus-evil story, which implies that Yates’s thinking has evolved little in 25 years. While I have little sympathy for the Guatemalan officials discussed in the film, or for the United States’s ongoing legacy of aiding murderous oppressors, Yates doesn’t offer even a cursory pretense of impartial investigation. Instead, the doc exploits victims’ families for easy tears and offers the Guatemalan military up as the devil with no indication of or feel for the convoluted bureaucratic nonsense that can lead to mass murder that remains unpunished.
So, Granito is agitprop, except it doesn’t work on its terms either. The key to good, or at least effective, agitprop (and Oliver Stone and Michael Moore know this) is that, yes, it must simplify matters, but it necessitates canny presentation so that it may truly get into viewers’ blood streams and rile them. Agitprop must be sleek and entertaining, and Granito is an overlong, needlessly convoluted mess that continues to introduce suffering characters long after it has made its salient points. Yates exhibits an entertainer’s wiliness by casting herself as the filmmaker opening up a door to the past (a fine hook), but she, to put it mildly, doesn’t have the charisma of a Stone or Moore, who often cast themselves as pretend everymen in their obsessive inquiries into governmental immorality. Boring and a little pompous, Granito is ultimately one of those obnoxiously earnest movies you wish you liked, but, in reality, don’t.