Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is the new documentary by filmmaker Pamela Yates, who also directed When the Mountains Tremble almost 30 years ago. It recounts the story of a genocide case against the Guatemalan military, currently being argued before the Spanish National Court on the basis of universal jurisdiction. The intriguing twist is that the 1982 documentary features as evidence in today’s legal trial—an instance of art shaping life shaping art. Granito refers literally to “a small grain of sand”; and the film’s message is that each granito, however small, can contribute to holding dictators accountable.
While the film is attracting very favorable attention from human rights organizations and in the film-festival circuit, a recent review by Paul Brunick in The New York Times labels the film politically shallow, portraying a “simple moral conflict between dictators and freedom-loving peasants.” For those of us who haven’t yet seen the film, it’s impossible to draw conclusions. But it is worth asking whether international justice can be romanticized or sensationalized in counter-productive ways. Surely, many filmmakers depicting human rights themes are looking to mobilize and provoke audiences (who can be indifferent, uninformed, or hostile), not just preach to the converted. Is this best done by presenting the complexities of prosecuting genocide in foreign courts or by revealing moral outrage in the face of genocide? These are artistic and political choices, reflecting a filmmaker’s purpose and target audience. What’s clear is that Brunick’s review has only piqued our interest in viewing, and grappling with, Granito.