This interview was conducted over email with Pamela Yates by Sarah Kerman a freshman undergraduate student majoring in Public Policy and working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.  

SK: What initially sparked your interest in creating documentaries focusing on human rights issues?

PY: I grew up in coal mining country in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania. It was an Irish-American enclave and tPamela-Yateshere were great storytellers. They told stories of the heroic miners and the evil mine owners, the hard-working poor and the uncaring rich to lesson their pain. It was the combination of seeing injustice all around me with the cultural outlet of storytelling that set me on my path.

Did you ever feel that you were in danger while filming?

Yes, often, but I try to compartmentalize it, and not let it ever stop me. I try to think about what a privileged and unique position I’m in to be able to film an unknown story and expose it to the world via filmic storytelling.

What are the advantages of using film as a medium for demanding justice?  How can filmmakers work to create documentaries that are upheld as evidence in the courtroom?

The advantage is that the viewer has an immediate and engaged reaction to the people and situations in documentary films.  Film moves and convinces unlike print.  I try to use the power of cinema to make people think and to create change. One of my hallmarks is the use of faces looking directly at the camera. I believe the most beautiful panorama of cinema is the geography of the human face.  You’d have to be a lawyer AND a filmmaker to create documentaries that hold up as evidence in a court of law. Harvard has such a program in its Law School called ” Law Art”

What was the process of using evidence from When the Mountains Tremble to indict Ríos Montt?

PY: I interviewed Ríos Montt in 1982. It was a 45 minute interview and I kept asking him about the role of the Army in the massacres of indigenous peasants in the countryside. He kept giving me the run around.  Finally, he got so exasperated that he blurted out, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. And if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here”. This was an admission of chain of command and the prosecutionwas able to use it in the case against him to prove that he had intention to commit genocide. But, we didn’t use that part in our 1982 film “When the Mountains Tremble”. I didn’t understand the implications of what he said and the theory of chain of command liability was not often used in a court of law. So it sat with all of the outtakes in a box for a quarter of a century in an old warehouse in New Jersey. When the case against Ríos Montt began to gather momentum, the lawyers asked me to go through all my outtakes from 1982, which is when we found this astonishing part of his interview.

What role does the Granito: Every Memory Matters mixed media project serve as a companion to the film?

Every feature length documentary film I make is the flagship for an entire media ecosystem. That includes a companion digital project, in this case “Granito: Every Memory Matters”. The idea is to create a public archive of memories from the time of the genocide, because it’s not taught in high school, nor college. Yet every family has something to contribute, based on their own experiences.

Why is preserving memory important to seeking transitional justice?

Historical memory is a central part of transitional justice. We can’t possibly move forward unless we honestly confront our past.

How have you dealt with opposition to this film?

I’ve been called a terrorist, communist, enemy of the state, and lesbian (!) but the extreme right in Guatemala.  In the US some reviewers have complained about my activist approach to storytelling – as in “how dare she”, but hey, if you are  doing something fresh, something new, you’re always going to get attacked.

What’s your advice to students who want to be filmmakers?

Get a broad liberal arts education, so that your curiosity about the world and about life is strengthened. It will make you a better filmmaker.

Additional information about Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.