Efraín Ríos Montt, former president/dictator/army general of Guatemala during the 1980’s, has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role during that country’s civil war. This cannot begin to redress the suffering and loss of the Guatemalan people, nor does it do a sufficient job of holding accountable all the individuals who played a part in the genocide (including those in the U.S. government who provided arms and support). But it is a symbolic gesture. Too little, too late — but still something. (UPDATE: Scratch that. His conviction has been annulled. Said Ana Caba, an ethnic Ixil: “The powerful people do what they want and we poor and indigenous are devalued. We don’t get justice. Justice means nothing for us.”)
The trial of Ríos Montt has revived old memories, particularly around a documentary film project I produced as a student at Ithaca College in 1994. The film, titled Fight to Return, Return to Fight, follows a group of Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas, Mexico, as they make their way back to their homeland after a 10 year exile. Recently, I dug up the U-Matic tape and had the film transferred to DVD. It is not particularly good (it is, after all, a student film — although it did win the Best Documentary Award in my class). But I suppose it has some social and historical value.
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Some production and background information:
The idea for the film emerged after talking to a Guatemalan liberation theology priest I met in Mexico City. He put me in touch with the necessary contacts. In December 1993, I traveled to southern Chiapas and spent a few weeks living in various refugee camps, talking with and interviewing Mayans. Even though life in the camps was hard, I remember how warm and welcoming people were. I accompanied this group back to a communal ranch they had acquired in Chaculá, Guatemala, where they were planning to start their lives anew.
Interestingly, I was in Chiapas in January of 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation began its uprising in Mexico. While we were close to the action, the refugees and I were probably the last to learn what was going on. I remember the fighter jets flying above us, and later listening to the radio in the middle of the jungle to try to figure out what was happening.
The film was shot in 8mm video and 16mm film (this was before the age of HD), and was edited on 3/4″ video (before the age of digital non-linear editing). One interesting anecdote is that I purchased the cheapest 16mm film camera I could find at the time, a Russian Krasnogorsk (less than $300, I think; the film and processing were donated by Ithaca College). As I was making my way back to Mexico City after filming, the military presence in Chiapas was substantial. So I am traveling in a little truck with various campesinos, and we get stopped at a check point. I am a chilango traveling with a Russian camera, so needless to say I stand out and the suspicious soldiers start asking me questions (there were all sorts of conspiracy theories about comunistas going around). I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I guess I talked my way out of what could have been a nasty situation.
I hope one day I can go back to Chaculá to see what has become of the people I met. I did find this online report that seems to be talking about the same community.