POV @ 25: Pamela Yates & Bernardo Ruiz on Outsider Status and Human Rights Filmmaking
In celebration of the 25th season of PBS’ groundbreaking documentary series POV, Filmmaker is running a four-part conversation series between two non-fiction directors with close ties to the show. A few weeks ago, award-winning director of When the Mountains Tremble Pamela Yates — whose memoir of Guatemala’s struggles, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, revisits the footage and topics of her debut — and Bernardo Ruiz, whose film Reportero airs on POV tonight at 10:00PM, sat down to talk about a variety of issues that arise from their work. Through the course of the discussion, Yates and Ruiz share where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re heading while dissecting different viewpoints of their craft.
In this final part, the two directors talk about being outsiders and the possibilities of human rights filmmaking.
Yates: I like to maintain an outsider-insider status. Of course I’m an outsider, and in the case of Guatemala, it really protected me because military aid had been cut off to Guatemala in the late 1970s under President Carter due to egregious human rights violations. They saw me as an American in the 1980s when President Reagan was president–as possibly a megaphone to helping reopen military sales there. So, I was an outsider but they wanted me to tell the story of the army. But I think learning and speaking a language, and feeling really comfortable in Central America was important. I always say if you speak Spanish, you can be on the inside of cariño. You can have a translator, but you’re never going to be on the inside of cariño—you’re connected in a very different way. And people sense that. They sense that you want to be a part of it. And I like to try to maintain that. I like to maintain that in the film community too, I like to shake things up and yet I’m part of this film community. I’m part of the film industry. And yet I’m outside the film industry too, as a human rights filmmaker.
Ruiz: I think that’s a great point. I think that to some extent at least with Reportero I inhabited the role of a kind of naïve outsider…but I think that was accurate. One of the things that being a so-called outsider allows you to do is to ask the obvious questions that nobody else is asking. You’re somewhat protected by the fact that you’re not from there. In my case, I’m both from Mexico and not from Mexico–certainly I had no familiarity with Tijuana before then–but I was also able to connect with people through language and culture and shared history, while being from kind of a very different place,
Yates: What do they think of you?
Ruiz: My relationship with Mexico has always been betwixt and between. I think in the beginning people confer an outsider status on me, which is completely fine by me. But I obviously have tools and culture and language that is absorbing more than people thinking in the beginning. And then I think down the line they started to think, “Well he’s a little more aware of these things than we realized.” And that’s a kind of useful thing.
I think as a documentary filmmaker it’s useful to silence yourself, depending on the type of filmmaker you are; to not to make your identity the primary thing. I, at least, am primarily interested in getting out of the way; I’m listening, I’m absorbing, and I’m happiest when it doesn’t matter if I’m there or not, when there’s something unfolding in front of me. But I did find it a very satisfying process, to kind of come in that way early on. I was seen as an American, because I was coming in from the United States and coming in from New York with New York credentials, but then every single person on my crew is bilingual or has some familiarity working in Mexico or Latin America. Very quickly we were taken under the wing of a lot of reporters there at Zeta, and a kind familiarity happens.
Yates: I think it’s important to have people feel comfortable enough to act normal. I’m not a really confrontational interviewer, I’m much more interested in drawing people out and often they’re not exactly who I thought they were. And that makes them so much more interesting, so much more nuanced, so much really like who we are all as complete individuals and human beings.
It’s also hard when you know someone really well, and you’re interviewing them, they’re talking to you, and you have a rapport with them that the audience might not be in on at all. So how do you make sure that you are asking them and drawing them out in a way that’s really for the story that the film is telling, not for the conversation you’re having with them?
Ruiz: That’s very true. Going back to the conversations we were having in the beginning about why we do this, I definitely share that desire to get to know people and to draw them out and find out what makes people tick, those kind of hidden stories that get at something truthful. It’s such a satisfying experience when you have a real interview and someone gives you something, because it’s special and it’s something to be treated respectfully there.
Ideally, as interviewers, we have some skin in the game. Before I do an interview, I will also try to give something up myself as well, to kind of put them at ease and to level the playing field somewhat. That can easily flip in an interview as I’m sure you’ve experienced. I’ve seen it happen where people also have agendas, they have personal agendas and political agendas, and so even though, from the outside you can appear to be the person with the position of power with the camera and the lights behind you and the mic, you can very easily be used by people in the interviewee chair.
Yates: It’s one of the dynamic tensions that I enjoy in documentary filmmaking. I also usually try to talk to people, try to have conversations and interview people. In the process people don’t want to talk to me at first and it takes a while to get them to talk to me. Like in Peru when I was making State of Fear, which is a film based on the conclusions of the Peruvian Truth Commission and their war. I really wanted to talk to people in Shining Path, and they’re a very clandestine organization, both in person and out of person, so I found someone who would talk to me, of course not on camera. I spent about two years visiting with her every time I was in Peru, going with her to the Shining Path pavilion in the prison, staying there for the whole day, talking to the other Shining Path prisoners. I love that process of going from no to yes. It also speaks to interviewing people. That person felt that no matter what my point of view was, I was going to accurately portray her in the film and she was going to say things she believed in, and that was going to be that in the film. I think what she says is really damning, but she doesn’t think so.
Ruiz: She’s comfortable with that representation of her perspective?
Yates: Yes. And feels it’s right.
Ruiz: Do you have a mechanism in place to protect yourself emotionally or spiritually? We end up spending so much time with people in some cases when I was making Reportero, it was very easy for me to spend time with Sergio because he was someone I had profound respect for, but there was other times where we spend time with people who are doing things we don’t agree with or sometimes things we’re radically opposed to our beliefs. Do you ever suffer from that process of “I’ve spent X amounts of months with the military and I’ve seen them do these things or witnessed conversations?”
Yates: I feel like I’m a spy in the enemy camp. That’s what keeps me going. That it’s very important to document what’s going on, to document this material. If you can’t stop it, the only other thing you can do is document it and save it for the day when it can be used in a way it should be used. And that’s how I keep the catalyst, keep the brain moving. I think it has an effect on you though, psychologically. It’s important for us to compartmentalize, especially when we’re in the field. There’s a massacre scene in When the Mountains Tremble, which is then repeated in Granito, and I remember the day when we were taken there, and how pretty much most of my emotions shut down because I couldn’t really express what I was feeling.
Ruiz: In the moment?
Yates: Yeah. It would have been too dangerous. And sometimes you’re affected emotionally so much by something that you can’t react. I think it’s one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But sometimes you do it to stay safe.
Ruiz: How soon after the massacre did you arrive?
Yates: Like three hours. It happened at daybreak and we got there at 9.
Ruiz: So in that moment, it’s just you and your cinematographer—
Ruiz: And are you feeling like, I need to document this, I need to cover this because who else is going to cover this?
Yates: Without really understanding 100% of what had happened, because actually the army took us there and they said that the guerillas had done the killing, so I said, “Okay, I would really like to talk to one the villagers.” So one of the village women spoke to me through an interpreter. I went back to the capital and translated what she said, and she had said actually it was the army that had come here, we recognized them by their boots. We tried to put that in the film, but it was just way too confusing for people. So we had to cut it, but that was really how we ultimately found out who was responsible for that massacre. I don’t know, you really just have to sublimate things. If I hadn’t sublimated things, I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to find somebody who could tell me what happened.
Ruiz: Right. And one of the things I always think about with films like yours, is that we’re often accused of having these political agendas, of trying to or at times being propagandistic. I find these accusations pretty irritating and also not based in any fact. One of the reasons I wanted to make Reportero in the first place was that around ’08, ‘09 there was so much cable coverage around Mexico that was so de-contextualized. It was like rubber-necking vulture journalism, it was body count journalism. There was absolutely no context around the broader drug market, about U.S. consumption, about U.S. arms involved in the conflict south of the border. It was just “look at what how chaotic northern Mexico is and look at the violence, moving on…” and that’s obviously a political choice, that’s obviously a framing device, to de-historicize and de-contextualize. I wonder if you ever feel like you have to defend your films or a film like Granito or Mountains Tremble to people who have wrapped themselves in this mantle of false journalistic purity and objectivity.
Yates: All the time. When we released Granito one of the Miami online newspapers had the the headline “Activists Gone Wild.” It wasn’t a good review. I felt like I had put on a wet t-shirt or something. Often, I really do feel that way. I really think there is a spectrum in nonfiction storytelling, all the way from advocacy to these false sense of journalistic report where all sides are given equal weight, which I don’t agree with at all; I think it’s very boring storytelling. I fall someplace in the middle of that and I think that through the years, telling more and more cinematic stories, I’ve gotten much better at letting the story lead and being true to the people in the story. I try to challenge myself with the concept that I started the film out with and what I learned along the way; what I learned in the journey of discovery that finally makes it into the finished film and makes it a lot richer film. But I am happy to rise to the occasion and debate anyone about the subject. I think that POV also has really contributed a lot to the field in this regard, that you can have a point of view, and you can make a film that is fair and true.
Ruiz: I think that there’s a kind of model of journalism that, if someone takes one position in a film, you automatically need to have this opposing view, even if it’s totally inaccurate and it’s not based in any verifiable fact. That process seems really absurd to me. Thankfully, I think POV is one of those spaces where we’re still able to do that work. Or Independent Lens. I like the public media featuring more of these types of films, I do think though there’s a lot of interest in this space now in a way there wasn’t before. We’re beginning to see the New York Times take on documentary, we’re beginning to see cable outlets take on feature documentary units; I feel like the big media institutions are beginning to dip their toes into these waters.
I’m curious to see how that’s going to unfold because what I think maybe these media entities don’t realize yet is how much work is involved in doing these types of projects; how long they take to make. It comes from a place of personal commitment, not X amount of dollars and X amount of months. It just doesn’t work that way. If it did, you could make them churn them out like a factory. They come from lifelong relationships and a desire to put yourself in difficult places, so I’m curious to see how that’s all going to unfold and I feel like POV is one of the last places in the media landscape that does that.
Yates: Or one of the first places, because they’re actually broadening and expanding and they have a whole other series now. So I think that’s really good. A lot of time people ask me if I’m an activist or a filmmaker. And I say I’m a human rights filmmaker. You can be a human rights lawyer, you’re still a very good litigator, but human rights is the basis of what you do. And human rights is the basis of what I do. But I’m a filmmaker and an artist. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Ruiz: Yeah. I feel like my roots are still in journalism … kind of a respect for a mode of work that more closely resembles journalism. If you look at the careers of a good friend and fellow filmmaker Natalia Almada, who makes these beautiful, spare films that are to my mind closer to works of art, she works in a space that more closely resembles fine art to me, and yet she gets at some of the exact same truths and conflicts that I’m interested in. I have take a much more journalistic approach, and it’s so interesting to hear what you’re saying about how documentary is so broad. There are many different spaces within that rubric where people can work as auteur art-film makers, journalists, as people with a human rights drive.