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The Echo of Pain of the Many

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2012

The title of the film is a line taken from a poem, ‘They dressed Me in Mourning’ by the mother of a ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala’s long and brutal war against its own people. The line was chosen by the writer, director and narrator of this powerful film, Ana Lucia Cuevas. Ana Lucia lost family members to the secret death squads operated by a military dictatorship, supported by the US Government and the CIA. It one sense it is a familiar and sobering story from the Latin American continent, but it also brings a distinctive and effective narration to a recurring set of tragedies.

Guatemala is a relatively small country with a population of over 13 million. It is situated between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, the last-named country having received most attention in the media. Colonised as part of the Spanish Empire, the country achieved full independence in 1839. The population includes the India people descended from the Mayan nation and a mixture of Europeans, Black African descendants and mestizos: the Indian population is found predominantly in the countryside. There were a number of dictatorships in the years following Independence. In 1944 the election of a reforming president initiated a period of social reform including land re-distribution.  Agriculture is a substantial sector of the economy with up to 50% of its exports dependant on the USA. This included plantations owned by the United Fruit Company [a familiar player in neo-colonial relations in Latin America]. A CIA- backed coup took place in 1954. Over the next 40 years military dictatorship were interspersed with civilian rule, but all directed towards the interests of the wealthy, the landowners and US State and Corporations. There was an intermittent but ongoing civil war from 1960 to 1996. Then a peace treaty bought a return to civilian rule and a greater degree of the rule of law: though the Presidents have continued to be representative of the right wing. The current is an ex-General.

The Cuevas family – Carlos and Rosario lower left – Ana upper left.

Ana Lucia’s film takes the form of a journey, a familiar narrative strategy for investigating and presenting events. In this case it is a journey into the past, and into the memories of the people of Guatemala.  Her own journey is to discover the truth about the death of her brother Carlos, a political and human rights activist murdered in 1984. But as she explains she discovers that her personal pain is part of the much larger national pain. In the course of the film she sketches in the outline of the events in Guatemala since the changes of the 1950s. Here the film uses archive film and photographic material: testimonies from survivors: her interviews with people: and information in titles. As in other countries on the receiving end of US imperialism, this tale features secret and subversive machinations: extreme and often systematic brutality: surveillance, harassment, rape, murder and genocidal actions. Even though I have seen such scenes played out in films from other countries in the continent, the events are often shocking. The film uses frequent cuts to a black screen – offering pauses where one can momentarily consider the revelations and then follow the tale further.

The statistics provided in the film are appalling. There were 200,00 victims in the 36 years of civil war. The number disappeared by secret squads is about 49,000. We hear that even now 20 to 30 years on families are still waiting to discover the truth and the remains of lost members. Many were civilians, often activists, and they included men, women, pregnant women, the elderly and children. Carlos’s wife Rosario and his young son were abducted tortured and murdered. This is a level of indiscriminate violence that even now is difficult to comprehend. Ana Lucia narrates how only now are the secret police and military papers being unearthed, as are the unidentified remains of victims. She observes the researches into the records of the dictatorship: tellingly a key Military ‘death diary’ is lodged in Washington. More painful, along with other bereaved women, she observes the excavation of mass graves and the painstaking forensic work to identify the victims.

The film opens with a series of testimonies of survivors from the war years. These include Mayan peasants from the countryside. Later in the film Ana Lucia attends a trial in 2009 of former military officers involved in a massacre at the village of Choatalúm. This was part of a ’scorched earth’ policy to eradicate support from the rebels fighting the government. The forces were trained and equipped by the USA. There were numerous massacres, villages were destroyed and the communities forced to flee to the mountains, and then re-housed in carefully controlled newly built villages. The Choatalúm trial is important in that it is the first time that any military personnel have been held accountable for atrocities. The conviction and sentencing of one of the former commanders is a key event in the changing response to the war. Earlier times saw an enforced silence, a silence that attempted to suppress criticism and pain. So the film stresses the importance that the opening up of memory brings to the survivors.

It is clear in the film that whilst here is now a continuing opening up of the past and increasing judicial treatment of the crimes that this has definite limits. Two of the Generals who supervised the criminal activities in the war are seen campaigning for the Presidency. We also see an interview with a right-wing leader lauding his Christianity at the same time as he vows to deal with ‘subversives’: a moment as chilling as any scene in the Hollywood melodramas set in the region.

Ana Lucia is though, positive at the end of the film. A trial of a commander involved in the murder of her brother Carlos has begun. A large public meting applauds the memory of him and other victims: she suggests that though small these are actions that have ‘never been before’, that there is a recovery of hope.’

I found the film compelling and at time moving. It manages to be informative about a neo-colonial war that is little known. Yet is does this without overburdening with historical explanation: the inferences are there, as in the telling photograph of US President Eisenhower with CIA-Chief Allen Dulles. The treatment of the long war is similar; the criminal events are presented simply without to large an emphasis on the awful statistics. The film melds very effectively the personal and the political. And what is most memorable is the restraint and dignity of the many survivors as they recount another unacceptable chapter in recent history. The parallels with other struggles, not just in Latin America, but among other oppressed peoples are clear. The producer told me that they recently screened the film to an audience in Cairo and a member immediately spoke of the parallels with their own experiences.

Armadillo Productions 2012.

There is a screening of the film at the WFA in Manchester on May 19th 2012.

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One Response to “The Echo of Pain of the Many

  1. […] convinced by the decision to use fades to black at the end of each short sequence, but in his review Keith suggests that this allows the audience a moment to reflect on the import of what they have […]

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