When the Mountains Tremble is a documentary on the persecution of indigenous peoples in Guatemala. The movie was originally released in 1983 and received numerous accolades. The movie has been re-released both for its 10th year anniversary and more recently on DVD for its 20th year anniversary. The movie was filmed by Yates (Sound) and Sigel (Camera), who collaborated as directors. Yates would continue on a career of award-winning documentaries including an Academy Award for El Salvador. Sigel would eventually depart the documentary genre to work on such Hollywood Blockbusters as The Usual Suspects, Three Kings, and X-Men.
The filmmakers' intent in making the movie was to record the injustices Guatamala's despotic government committed against the indigenous peoples and use it to sway American opinion. While the filmmakers are clearly on the side of the Indians they give both sides reasonable time to make their case. Not allot of camera tricks were needed to get you rooting for the natives. It is difficult not to feel an affinity for the 15 year old female gorilla was speaks of a better future while making a traditional craft in between skirmishes with the Army. This feeling is further solidified when the next scene shows a barking general in aviator glasses surrounded by armed thugs (we later find out the general is currently being prosecuted for genocide). To be fair, they also show the army's lowly foot soldiers, who also look 15, getting shot and explaining that they do not understand the mission only that they are doing their duty.
The humanitarian crises are also well documented. Indian IDPs explain how their village was raped and pillaged before being burnt to the ground. They now try to survive in the mountains, keeping lookouts for any signs of an impeding army. The filmmakers acquired eerie black&white footage of government henchmen carrying out disappearances and police in gasmasks gassing protestors while beating them with batons. The climax of the film begins with a series of grim pictures drawn by Indian children showing the horrors they have personally witnessed. This then leads into a survey of a village that has had its "subversives" executed by a local army unit. Despite this horror the image that leaves the most lasting impression is that of a mother with a baby slung on her back foraging threw a trash dump as incoming trucks unload practically on top of her.
Aesthetically the two do an amazing job; the 20 year old film remains remarkably vibrant. All of the footage used is real except briefly at the start of the movie where actors are used to recreate high level US governmental dealings that are derived from actual audio of those incidents. The rest of the film is from formal interviews, stock footage, and "day-in-the-life-of" recordings. Six languages (English, Spanish, 4 Indian languages) are spoken in the movie. The filmmakers chose translated dubs when the speaker was communicating mainly information and subtitles when communicating passion. This is done very effectively, especially during a rally in the woods when a young girl is motivating the Indians to join the revolution. However the subtitles are always done in stark white regardless of a white background, too often I found myself leaning forward to read what was being said. The two decided not to narrate the film in preference of letting the images and actors speak for themselves. To tie it all together they had Rigoberta Menchu, author of I, Roberta Menchu, tell her story and plight during transitions in the movie.
The use of handheld camera techniques gives the movie a much more personal feeling that really brings you into these peoples world. Leaders on both sides give passionate soliloquies. The film uses music sparsely, but when it does it is always to create a surreal Baraka-esque quality. Despite all the inherent gloom of this subject the film offers some spine-tingling rays of hope. Most notable is the TV address by General Maldonado, who, in the middle of a fiery speech about the communist subversives, has his signal jammed by the guerrillas and dubbed over with positive words for the revolution and condemnation of the army.
The anniversary DVD has three special features. Save yourself some time and skip the Susan Sarandon introduction and the Rigoberta Menchu epilogue, and go strait to the director commentary. Yates and Sigel are joined by producer Peter Kino; their tale in making the movie is a story in itself. The two made it into the country under the auspices of reporting on Guatemala's first election in about 25 years. Though the election was a fraud designed to ease restrictions imposed by Washington, it allowed the two unusually close contact to all echelons of the army's ranks. They truly earned the army's confidence after being shot down in an army helicopter by the gorillas. Going through several intermediaries they eventually were able come face-to-face with the gorillas and live with them for weeks. With death squads combing the jungle and all other reporters long gone, it was a harrowing ordeal. Other interesting anticdotes include Sigel having to repair his broken camera with a Swiss Army Knife and sewing needles, and Yates shacking up with 300 male soldiers in the army barracks, one who consistently assured her she reminded him of Brooke Shields. The commentary also fills in the narrative that was slightly lacking in the film and gives the viewer a better appreciation of what went into the making of the film.
This movie clearly has many political ramifications. It leaves no question about the criminal brutality carried out by the government's thugs and army. By linking the US through both covert and overt support of the regime, the film shows us equally culpable for the atrocities committed against the indigenous people. Guatemala has been the paradigm of banana republics since United Fruit set up shop and enlisted the aid of the military dictatorship. Though the natives benefited from this development, it eventually became economically limiting and overtly oppressive. The Indians, who comprise the majority of the population, eventually fought for and gained a fragile but genuine democracy. The elected president sought land reforms that would allow the people to further their economic prosperity. Most of this land reform would be taken from United Fruit. To prevent the land grab, United Fruit painted the government as communist reds and sought US intervention. Washington responded by having the CIA stage a coup in 1954 to overthrow the existing government in favor of another military regime. To this day, Washington continues to aid the regime with weapons, training, and cash. Even during periods of arms restrictions, in light of the Indian persecution, civilian goods serving the same objective were allowed in. The film documents 50 caliber machine guns being attached to "civilian" helicopters to suppress the gorillas. The following scenes of slaughtered Indians segueing into Regan requesting more money to support the Guatemalan army, leaves little room for moral justification.
The inclusion of Rigoberta Menchu was surprisingly an afterthought. She had been in exile after writing her book and was introduced to the project through a mutual colleague. Depending on your view of the woman, this addition either lends greater validity and emotional pull or a sense of skepticism. Either way it would be a shame to let her presence detract from the story being told.
The 3 main points to be taken away from this movie are an understanding of the guerrilla movement, the corruption autocratic government breeds, and the consequences of US foreign policy. The Indians took up arms out of desperation and only as a last resort. They comprise the majority of the country's population and only seek equality and a warranted role in the government. As the War on Terror transitions to the War on Despotism there is hope that US policy makers understand military regimes like Guatemala's, is an anathema to American values and national interest. The time has come to abandon the draconian anti-communist thesis we subscribed to in justifying this atrocity and instead provide for a smooth transition for the indigenous people to take control of their destiny.