Two award-winning films – one from Guatemala, the other from Israel – are currently making the film festival rounds.
Though they come from worlds that are thousands of kilometres apart, they raise the same common issue of indigenous peoples’ quest for justice.
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is American filmmaker Pamela Yates’ attempt to revisit the footage she has from the height of Guatemala’s civil war in the 1980s in order to piece together the role of US-funded and trained military leaders in the large-scale massacres of at least 20,000 members of the Mayan community.
Meanwhile, The Law in These Parts, or TLITP, is Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandowicz’s journey into the legal minds of military judges and supreme court justices whose decisions opened the door to Israel’s colonisation and its long-term ethnic cleansing policy in the West Bank and Gaza.
The task for the two filmmakers was enormous.
As forensic scientist Kate Doyle who is working on the Guatemala investigation puts it: “It is so hard to nail the intellectual authors of these crimes.”
Yet nailing the authors – and the legal architects – of the crimes is exactly what the two filmmakers set out to do.
Yates pieces together police and military records, hoping to establish a consistent top-down command linking Guatemala’s army general at the time to the mass-scale killings.
Alexandrowicz interviews the judges to understand how decisions they made came together to provide the legal parameters of the Israeli occupation.
Stylistically, the two films could not be more different. Alexandrowicz’s approach is sober, detached and rational.
He sits the judges at a desk facing the camera, while patiently and methodically asking them questions about key cases that they ruled over.
The interviews are shot against a background of black and white archival pictures of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and the filmmaker’s narration is devoid of any emotion.
Yates’ engagement, on the other hand, is deeply personal. She shot a chunk of her footage by embedding herself with the fighters and the Guatemalan military.
Witness to horrors
Part of Granito‘s story is her own story as a documentary filmmaker coming of age through delving deeply into the horrors that she was witnessing.
“I saw making this film as a love letter to the next generation of documentary filmmakers and human rights defenders,” she told me.
But despite their aesthetic differences, both Alexandrowicz and Yates tell stories from a place of wanting to make their fellow citizens aware of what their countries are doing.
“The whole legal system governing the occupation is something that Israeli society is totally unaware of,” Alexandrowicz explained to me.
“The military courtroom and legal processes prolonging the occupation is a metaphor for a dichotomy in Israeli existence: [the judges] feel they are doing the best that they can, and within the values that we believe in: democracy rule of law.
“On the other hand we have this long prolonged occupation that military but and has very clear interests in the land and resources of the West Bank.”
Alexandrowicz’s own education began in 1987 when he was drafted into the Israeli army to serve in the West Bank.
That’s when got to know the world that Palestinians live in and the rules under which they live.
Yates first heard of a “hidden war” in Guatemala when she was a 29-year old sound recordist. Thus began her long journey to unveil the hidden.
“If you ask an American was the US ever complicit in genocide in the Americas in the 20th century, they would say ‘No’. I have a sense of duty as an American to expose the truth,” she told me.
“The US often favours supporting governments that repress their own people. Back then is it was to stop the spread of communism.
“Today democratic movements are being suppressed under the guise of war of drugs.”
Israel is one of the few countries in the world where an occupied people can take their case to the highest court of the nation occupying them.
Technically speaking, Palestinians have legal recourse at the Israeli Supreme Court level.
But as Alexandrowicz points out: “What we call laws are rules that Palestinians have no connection to and no way of influencing in some cases they don’t even know what the law is unless they are prosecuted.”
Culture of impunity
Guatemala is different. There, the system is corrupt and the culture of impunity reigns so supreme that the trial had to be held in Spain’s national court, a world away from where the crimes were committed.
But in a sense, the films expose two different kinds of travesties of justice. For Palestinians, it’s seeking justice in a court of law that could – and indeed does – use its power to legitimise their oppression.
For Guatemalans, it’s having to leave their country entirely and have their day in an alien court if they are to get any justice at all.
Alexandrowicz told me he was surprised initially by the reception that his film has received internationally because he made it for an Israeli audience.
I am not surprised.
Seeking justice is a human instinct. And the stories of the indigenous people of Palestine and Guatemala seeking justice, when told as well as they have in Alexandrowicz and Yates’ films, will resonate universally.
Granito – How to Nail a Dictator recently screened at the DC International Film Festival and is currently playing in Europe. TLITP is slated to run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival next week.
I encourage you to catch both if you get a chance.