By Amir Ganjavie.
Claudia Paz y Paz, a highly respected criminal law expert and judge with over eighteen years of experience, was the former Attorney General of Guatemala. As the first woman to hold such a high position in Guatemala, she was at the forefront of different fights to bring justice to the nation during her tenure. Burden of Peace, co-directed by Joey Boink and Sander Wirken, tells the story Paz y Paz and was recently screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Boink took time out to discuss Paz y Paz and documenting her story on film.
Your documentary not only illuminates the life of a politically motivated character but it also has a compelling story. You followed the political life of Claudia Paz y Paz for four years and show her very memorable struggle during that time, leading up to a tragic ending. All of the qualities of a good yarn are here. What made you interested in her life in the beginning? How did you realize that this could be a good story for your documentary?
Thank you, that’s a good question. There are several reasons. I already had some experience in Guatemala before, both as a filmmaker and as a political scientist, so I knew a little about the background of the country. In 2010 when I was researching this story, I wanted to make a film about the crisis of violence since Guatemala was topping all the world rankings for homicide rates and I wanted to search for the reasons, as well as the reasons why so many of these murders go unsolved. The United Nations had called Guatemala a killer’s paradise so that was kind of the theme of my research and then we noticed that Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed to lead the prosecutor’s office. When I learned about her I knew there was a story, that there was drama in it, because she was the first woman to lead the prosecutor’s office in such a male-dominated society. Secondly, she was a former UN human rights lawyer who would be working in a system that is still tied to the former military dictatorship in a country where a lot of human rights defenders are being attacked. So those two things were very special in her appointment and I knew that there would be a genuine storyline. How was she going to confront this society? And how was she really going to be able to fight corruption and impunity? She made some statements when she was appointed so I thought that if we could get the opportunity to follow her and if she would promise transparency then we would have all the ingredients of a good film.
Why did you decide to end the shooting of the movie at this specific point in the life of Paz y Paz? Is it because you felt that it is necessary to support her? Is her life in danger now?
Our mission was to film during her mandate from the beginning to the end, though of course we didn’t know that it would end like this. But when it happened, we knew that it would be the end of the film, though I think maybe not the end of her personal story, but I think it was part of the dramatic storyline that we wanted to tell from looking at how someone can change a society from the position of attorney general. And within her time in office we see what she can and cannot achieve. When her mandate is over then the film is over but of course the story is not over and she is still living under hard conditions since she cannot return to Guatemala for the foreseeable future.
So the story is mostly about her mandate rather than about her struggle as a person?
No, I think we focus more on her as an attorney general but of course her life as an attorney general has implications for her personal life and we also follow that. And you get to see the personal attacks that she faces and you also get to see the personal consequences that she must bear at the end of the film when she has to flee the country with her family. Still, we wanted to focus on her mission as attorney general.
And what is your objective in directing this documentary? Do you follow or have a specific goal in mind?
Well, as a documentary maker, I always love stories that talk about social issues from a personal perspective, so that’s why I liked Claudia Paz y Paz’s story about impunity in Central America. And we have real hope that the story can put Guatemala back on the agenda outside of Guatemala itself since more people will learn about the current security and human rights situation there. So yeah, I have a goal as a filmmaker, which is to show a personal story that tells something about a broader social issue. And my other goal is to get Guatemala back on the political agenda in other countries.
There are some similarities between your work and Laura Poitras’s Citizen Four (2014) in the sense that both movies reveal the real life of highly controversial political figures who fight for human liberty. Both films show that these heroic figures are simply humans who make mistakes. Your representation of Paz y Paz’s everyday life is amazing in this sense. Why were you allowed to have so much access to here?
I think because she is an honest person so she didn’t feel the need to hide anything. She committed herself to creating a transparent prosecutor’s office under her leadership so that’s why she gave us a lot of access. Also, it is of course always part of the process for a documentary maker to gain confidence, trust, and access. I think the story that we wanted to make could only be made if we had access or else it would have been a completely different kind of film. But we also wanted to show what lies on the other side. As a journalist you get to see and report the daily news, but we also wanted to show how the news is being constructed.
You are from the Netherlands but you film the lives of people in a developing country. As your film demonstrates, there are always misconceptions about the real motives of a director who is from a rich country among the citizens of a poor country. Have you ever thought of this during your project? How did this awareness impact your work?
Yes, well of course it is my perspective as the director of the film and everyone in the audience can have a different perspective. I believe that we were able to make an honest story about an honest person and I’m also glad that we got to film people from the other side who are campaigning against Claudia Paz y Paz. So, by that I think, we got an honest [and] objective point of view. But of course I cannot erase myself being European, from the other side of the world. But we did have several years of experience in Guatemala before making a film about the country so we knew Guatemalan society and we have good friends there who have seen the film and feel that it is honest.
Given your closeness to Paz y Paz, did you feel threatened following her departure? Did you receive any threats during the filming process?
Well, the difficult thing – and it also relates to your previous question – is that as a European filmmaker during this campaign that was launched against her, it also affected us in the sense that [they were able to say] “look, she’s there with the European people, and she only wants to portray herself as a hero in foreign countries.” And that of course was not true because, on the contrary, we made this film and we wanted to follow her. But at the end of her mandate she was attacked by those saying “well, she is only being honored outside of Guatemala, but inside she is only a Marxist and that [she is] under Western influence.” So we became part of those threats and we were seen as the Western influence on her. That was, of course, also damaging to us and we also felt a little threatened by that. But we didn’t feel any safety threats except for when we were filming during some operations, like arrests, and we of course had to stop working if violence started.
You collaborated with Sander Wirken for this project and it is your first experience of him directing. How did you find the experience of working together on the project? Was this model necessary because of the nature of this movie or do you plan to work in the same way on future projects?
Well, Sander is a lawyer and he already had also a large stake in Guatemala so that was a good way to cooperate on this project. Regarding the working process, I did the directorial aspect and he did interviews and we shared the research. It was very good to work together there because we were a small team so we were able to just go as just the two of us in the car with Claudia. If our team had been larger then that would have been much more difficult so I liked the style of working with a small team, though I’m not sure if I will work in the same way for my upcoming projects.
There is an absence of clear chronology in the movie and we are not very sure about the time for each decision that Paz y Paz makes. What was the reason for this decision? Was it an artistic choice?
Well, I’m not sure if that’s true because we say that she was appointed in December 2010 and when the journal says that she has to leave office in May 2014 it mentions the year. So we did search for chronology and I think we also mention that. You could ask why we didn’t mention every day in every scene, but I think that would be a little bit too distancing from the scene itself.
How has the movie been received at previous film festivals such as the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival? Also, have you heard anything about the movie and its reception in Guatemala?
Well, we had a pre-premiere in Prague and received a very warm reception there, with all three screenings selling out. And we had very interesting questions during the Q&A session afterward. It was, of course, emotional after four years of work seeing the film for the first time on the screen and see the reaction of the audience; that was a very good feeling. Now we’re heading up for the world premiere in The Hague and next week we’ll have the UK premiere in London and the US screenings at the San Diego Film Festival and in Phoenix. We will be in New York, Madrid, and Paris. So I cannot tell more about our screenings since we’ve had only one so far.
The final question is about your plan for future projects. Are you working on anything specific right now?
Yes, definitely. In the coming months I will elaborate on the plans and also enjoy the screenings that we have yet to come but I cannot speak very specifically about the next film since it is still at a very early stage.
Miad Moarref assisted with this interview.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.