Title: Granito: How To Nail a Dictator
Director: Pamela Yates
The art of reflexive cinematic disquisition — in which an area of putative inquiry and the very arc of the filmmaker’s own artistic quest are commingled, and presented alongside one another — is a tricky feat. It can make for heady entertainment when the pretzel makers are whipsmart (witness Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” for instance), and even give extra layers of sociological heft and insight to nonfiction films, as in works like “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Catfish.” For Pamela Yates’ “Granito: How To Nail a Dictator,” however, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it just doesn’t work, alas. Instead, it serves as a leaden weight on the well-meaning material, dragging it down into the depths of an inelegant bore.
An investigation of the social injustice perpetrated against Guatemala’s poor and indigenous peoples by its right-wing military leaders, “Granito: How To Nail a Dictator” is a follow-up of sorts to Yates’ sobering 1983 documentary “When the Mountains Tremble.” At the time of that film, guerillas were agitating for social change, so there was a quality of charged uncertainty to the proceedings. Here, Yates casts a look back at the impact of her movie, interspersing sequences from her earlier work (including behind-the-scenes material, and chats with Spanish war crimes prosecutors) with new interview material that details the correlative crusades of Mayan activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Rigoberta Menchu and others, and the manner in which the international war crimes trials played out.
In his “Los Angeles Times” review, fellow critic Robert Abele pegged its “naggingly studied tone” as the reason the film feels so much like a dry, staid history class lesson rather than the kind of social conscience thriller it wants and means to be, and he’s right. In both attitude and overall presentation, “Granito” lacks the sort of forcefulness that isn’t merely casually solicitous of an audience, but actively pulls them along. The film is more engaging when it avoids the sort of self-serving boosterism by which it is often marked. (Yates asking fellow journalists their opinions of her seems close to meaningless, and downright weird.) The meticulous record-keeping of the brutal Guatemalan regime (and indeed, almost all autocracies) is more than enough interesting by itself. It’s just a shame “Granito” seems to feel the need to dress up the more pedestrian aspects of this horror.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.