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Filmmaker to correct 1983 film on Guatemala war

07 July 2014, 16:12 MARK STEVENSON

Mexico City — When the Mountains Tremble was an award-winning movie that awakened wide attention to the war in Guatemala. But at least one thing turned out to be wrong — and filmmaker Pamela Yates says she's going to set it right.

A dramatic scene from the 1983 documentary will be corrected to show that the Batzul massacre highlighted in the film was committed not by the military, but by leftist rebels disguised as soldiers.

"We intend to make a correction that will clarify what happened," Yates said in a statement last month. "It stands as a reminder of the terrible human costs of the violence in 1982-83."

She said she will also amend a 2011 follow-up documentary, "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator."

In 1982, Yates and her team traveled by helicopter to a mountain village where residents were mourning over the bodies of 17 men. In the documentary, women in traditional dress are heard wailing, their stunned faces shown up close as others look over the bloodied bodies of the dead. When asked which group was responsible, one woman, speaking in the local Quiche language, responds "It was the same as a soldier's uniform. They said, 'We are soldiers.'"

Human rights reports, however, later determined the killings were committed by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in retaliation for the villagers' decision to collaborate with the government. In her statement, Yates pointed to a 1999 report published by the Commission for Historical Clarification.

Yates said that during a return trip in 2014, she spoke with the woman featured in the scene as well as with other villagers to confirm the findings. "What our guides from Batzul, victims of the massacre, asked of us is that we make clear that the guerrillas and not the Army carried it out," she wrote in her statement.

She did not specify how the films will be corrected. In an emailed message, she said "at this point it is premature to say just how I will modify the earlier films."

For a Batzul massacre survivor who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, a correction of "When the Mountains Tremble" is long overdue. Then 15 years old, he was sent by his father to warn neighbors when the armed men showed up. His father and uncle were killed by the rebels.

"It doesn't seem right to me that the army is blamed, when those who were really responsible have gone into hiding," the survivor said. "What I want is for this to be cleared up and the error to be corrected."

Upon its release, "When the Mountains Tremble" won the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as other honors, and helped raise the profile of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize nine years later.

Long viewed as one-sided repression by the brutal governments of the time, the 1960-96 civil war that claimed about 200,000 lives now is being recognized as more complex.

Human rights reports agree the Guatemalan army committed about 93 percent of the killings. A United Nations truth commission report attributed 3 percent to the leftist guerrillas. Responsibility for the other 4 percent remains unclear.

David Stoll, an anthropology professor at Middlebury College who has worked extensively in Guatemala, said that Yates' original depiction of the Batzul massacre could be attributed to the "fog of war."

Stoll questioned, though, why it took Yates so long to check the facts and why the footage from Batzul was reused in "Granito" even after the rebels' responsibility had surfaced.

"People like Pam were not nearly as skeptical of the guerrillas as they should have been," Stoll said.

Guatemala is engaged in a prolonged, complex struggle to bring those responsible for wartime massacres to justice. On Friday, a Guatemalan court issued the first conviction against a leftist guerrilla commander for a massacre.

The court sentenced Fermin Felipe Solano Barrillas to 90 years in prison for ordering the 1988 massacre of 22 pro-government farmers in the town of El Aguacate.

Efforts to prosecute the war's highest-profile official, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, have stumbled.

In 2013, a panel sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in jail for his role in the massacres of thousands of Mayans during his 1982-83 rule. But the country's Constitutional Court later annulled the conviction, a decision many say was a sign of lingering influence by the wartime military and its supporters.

A retrial of Rios Montt, who is the focus of Yates' film "Granito," is scheduled to begin in January.

- AP


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