Documentary reviews: Lost Angels by Thomas Napper and Granito by by Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy and Paco de Onis
Of the 16 documentaries and five dramas showing at the 15th Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London later this month, two in particular focus the camera lens on people omitted from the national narrative of the United States.
Lost Angels is the story of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a rundown, 50 block neighbourhood which is home to around 11,000 people – two-thirds of whom struggle with mental illness or drug problems. With its shocking levels of poverty and street sleeping, Thomas Napper’s sympathetic documentary often feels like it is set in the developing world rather than the richest nation on earth. It would be easy for Napper to wallow in the sheer desperation and futility of life on Skid Row. Instead he chooses to make the entrepreneurial efforts of individuals and organisations to help the community the backbone of the film, from the running of shelters and missions to volunteer street cleaners and human rights defenders.
Best of all are the intimate interviews conducted with the colourful and prominent residents of Skid Row which humanise and give identities and histories to those who are either ignored or blamed by the government and wider society. While incisive commentary from academics and social activists provides context and analysis, it is the residents of Skid Row that make this film the memorable and moving portrait of forgotten America it is.
In 1982, horrified by the Reagan Administration’s support of the military dictatorship in Guatemala, American documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates travelled to the country to witness the murderous counter-insurgency campaign that was being waged against rebel forces in the Guatemalan highlands. Her subsequent film, When The Mountains Tremble, went on to inform and encourage American activists to work to end US support of Central American military dictatorships.
Although she didn’t realise it fully at the time, records and testimonies now show that the brutal military assaults she documented were in fact part of a genocide which killed around 200,000 people in the early 1980s. Facing an armed insurgency from within the Mayan population, the US-equipped Guatemalan army conducted a scorched earth policy in rural areas which destroyed over 450 villages, with the police disappearing hundreds of leftist political activists at the same time. In a chilling clip, a smiling soldier explains “we’ve got a list, and if they appear on this list they die.”
Part detective story, part political thriller, Granito is Yates’s attempt to make sense of the horrific events she witnessed. More importantly, it turns out some of the footage she shot in 1982 may assist in bringing to justice the instigators of the genocide, and the film’s second half concerns the story of her involvement in the ongoing attempt to indict Rios Montt, president of Guatemala from 1982-3.
Yates argues the film’s overarching theme is “How does each of us weave our own responsibilities in to the pattern of history?” And although no high level Government officials have been indicted for their crimes, Yates can be proud that Granito will play a valuable role in raising awareness of this dark period of Guatemalan, and US, history.
Lost Angels is showing at the Ritzy Cinema at 19:00 on 27 March and at 21:00 on 31 March. Granito is showing at the ICA at 18:15 on 25 March and Curzon Soho at 16:00 on 26 March. For more information on the film festival visit http://www.hrw.org/en/iff/london
An edited version of this review appeared in the Morning Star.
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. Ian_js@hotmail.com.