Granito: Sundance Review

Meaty, self-reflexive doc about the tragic history of Guatemala.

The film tracks the history of the country, but viewers may feel the documentarian inserts herself too much into the story.

PARK CITY — Sundance has been awash in documentaries this year, but one of the most unique is Pamela Yates’ Granito. This is because the film is not just an investigation of social injustice but a commentary on the documentary filmmaker’s role in the events he or she chronicles. The picture will be a hard sell to mainstream audiences, but it could spark interest from many political groups. 

In 1982, Yates went to Guatemala to make a movie about the civil war roiling that country; the resulting documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, was shown at the very first Sundance Film Festival in 1984. At the time she made that film, guerrillas — including student protestors and indigenous Mayan people — were fighting the country’s repressive military government, but the outcome of the conflict was uncertain. After she stopped shooting, tens of thousands of rebels disappeared, and it was believed that they were the victims of governmental genocide.

More than 20 years later, after a change in the government of Guatemala, the country began to investigate the slaughter of the Mayan people, and a war crimes tribunal in Spain even set out to prepare a case to indict the former leaders of the country. Yates realized that excerpts and outtakes from her earlier film might aid the prosecution, and this case forced her to look back and question the role she played as a neutral observer.

While these moral issues are fascinating, some may feel that Yates puts too much of herself in the movie. There’s a fine line between self-involvement and a relevant form of self-criticism. For the most part, Yates walks the line skillfully, even if she occasionally tips over into narcissism. (She asks a journalistic liaison whom she met in 1982, “What were your impressions of me?” One is tempted to call out, “Who cares?”) The footage from the earlier film is carefully chosen, and there are potent new interviews with forensic experts trying to verify the crimes that occurred 25 years ago. One of the most striking figures in the film is Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan activist who was at the heart of Mountains and later won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to halt the genocide.

The new film makes some strong criticisms of the Reagan administration for aiding the military leaders in the 80s, but the filmmaker avoids shrill message-mongering. Granito is a bit overlong, but much of it plays like a good thriller, as we await the results of the war crimes investigation. Although we don’t quite get the rousing payoff that we seek, real life doesn’t always have the neat resolution of a Hollywood movie.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production: Skylight Pictures
Director: Pamela Yates
Screenwriters: Peter Kinoy, Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis
Producer: Paco de Onis
Director of photography: Melle van Essen
Music: Roger C. Miller
Editor: Peter Kinoy
No rating, 103 minutes