“This sardine-can cab ride back from Pacaya is jeopardy. It’s all I can do to not look down to see pebbles ricochet off the wheels of our jalopy and skip down into the abyss below as we skate along a snaking dirt track to Antigua. The ink above scattered with stars are all that staves my heart from jumping into my mouth. Those stars above are a drug – distracting me from the brain chatter. Heidi snoozes on my shoulder, deservedly. No wonder the Maya looked up for solace. ” – Notes December 17th 2011
At it’s initiation CODOC had a mission which transposed two inter-dependent dynamics at it’s heart. To combine smart, direct storytelling with a distinct aesthetic together with an honest, transparent approach to journalism. Our first film, a feature documentary on Sri Lanka’s civil war had just won us an award and by the end of the year we were given the opportunity to take our concept to an international broadcaster.
Finding Lucia’s Story
We first heard of Lucia from one of our contacts at Amnesty International in London, England. During a meeting he had pulled out a brief pertaining to the stories of two journalists in Guatemala, one of whom we heard had fled her home town of Panajachel after receiving death threats because of an article she had written for elPeriodico, a Guatemala City-based daily. In her article, Lucia points to the disappearance of a local man named Luis Tan. Tan had ‘suspected links’ to one of the local drug cartels currently ravaging the rural north and east. Because of Guatemala’s lack of an effective police force, various ‘citizen-security’ forces had been springing up in rural villages to fill the void. One of these ‘Safety Commissions’ – essentially vigilante groups dispensing justice as they saw fit – were allegedly behind Tan’s disappearance. He is still missing.
In her article, Lucia brazenly calls out the members of the Safety Commission and accuses them of using extralegal measures to enforce their own code of conduct. She goes on to claim the town mayor and state authorities as being complicit with the Safety Commission by their indifference. It was a striking story and one my producing partner Heidi felt we could tell. Guatemala had recently elected a former military general to the office of President, Otto Perez Molina. This would be the first time the country had elected a former army-man since the military dictatorship fell in the 1980’s – a time when the regions human rights record was at an all time low. A compelling canvas to tell an emotive story.
Two months later we were pitching to Al Jazeera’s news magazine show The Listening Post. We would have Lucia as the central figure, through which we could talk about the broad state of media freedom in Guatemala and what it would look like once General Perez Molina takes office in January. The Listening Post commissioned a six minute piece from us and two days after we were given the go-ahead we flew out to Guatemala City. It happens that fast.
We had learnt early on that the process by which you produce stories is just as important as the content. When Heidi was interviewing formerly abducted child soldiers in Pader, Uganda – this became clear. As filmmakers, journalists we parachute into a story, capture what we can – what we need – and leave. Those are the mechanics of the job that at times hides an inconvenient truth. Which is that when we leave, lives continue. The stories we elicit have further chapters long after we lose interest. We learnt this in Uganda with those children. They had one too many times told the same stories, shed the same tears to the same cameras. Our cameras. When the day came for us to interview Lucia we remembered this lesson and our responsibility.
My notebook went everywhere with me. It drew in scribbles on the road. Random thoughts, conjecture, interview questions and more. Every so often these snatches of words would form themselves into something cogent. This is what I wrote the night before our interview with Lucia:
“In Lucia’s last e-mail she wrote something that has stuck with me: “Yo también soy periodista … mi voz, mi palabra es lo único que tengo para expresarme y hacer mi trabajo.” It roughly translates: “I am also a journalist. My voice, my word is the only thing I have to express myself and do my job.” This is courage. For some there are ‘jobs’ for others there are vocations. I look forward to meeting her tomorrow.” – Notes, December 13th
Lucia was dressed in a Guatemalan textile – one of those rainbow coloured hand made fabrics that we had seen market sellers trade. She had a pierced right eye-brow and a notebook much like my own. Around her neck she wore a garland made of soda can openers. Hippie-cool, a free bird confined to a cage.
She sat where the best light could be found. Through our translator she told her story at great depth, with great heart. She told us she had crossed a line that journalists in Guatemala seldom cross. She named names. This was her crime according to threats she had received. What had compelled her to do so? Some sense of duty or justice? Did she feel anyone would hear her, would anybody care? No, she said, she did so out of frustration. She did so out of sorrow at seeing her home town disintegrate around her.
She spoke honestly, with a set jaw. Stern, fixed eyes. She also thought she would have been protected. A naive sentiment as it turned out. “That’s how come I’m here at my ‘refugio temporal'” she says, “instead of with my children.”
Indeed, no help came from the authorities. There was no public outcry. Then she showed us the YouTube clip. It’s a chilling piece of theatre, a hurried scrap of rage. Shot, we were told, by a woman with an iPhone and later posted up on online. It shows a recording of a televised rant by Juan Manuel Ralon and Victor Anleu the very same members of the Saftey Commission that Lucia had named in her article. The pixellated clip shows Ralon speaking directly to camera, clutching his microphone, jabbing a finger at the lens accusing Lucia directly of being a drug-trafficker. He is saying all this on a talk show which, she tells us, is hosted by the other man she named as being complicit; Panajachel Mayor and public personality Gerardo Higueros. These are twelve minutes that capture explicitly the braided twine of violence and impunity that has Guatemala in a choke hold.
Below, as if speaking directly to Lucia, Ralon claims that she is ‘trash that should end up at the bottom of a heap.” This was in direct reference to Lucia’s article, the last line of which reads: “If the next person to rest at the bottom of the world’s most beautiful lake [Lake Atitilan] with rocks holding them down is me, you will know who to blame.” Ralon, it seems, felt the lake was too good for her, offering the ‘trash heap’ as an exchange.
Here is another YouTube clip. Some sinister mash-up of a television appearance Lucia had made shortly after her case went public. An attempt to ridicule her, make her look ‘crazy’ as Lucia says. It plays like an absurdist regurgitation made all the more creepy when Lucia tells us that she suspects the Safety Commission as being behind it. There is venom in this comedy.
There are other YouTube clips. She clicks through them on her laptop as we record her responses. At turns she scowls, grimaces at the words spoken about her. We ask her what she feels when she watches these back – she sighs. That these lies are spread about her, of her cartel links, of her being a trafficker – on television, now on YouTube. The lies have become international, she says, a tear escapes her eyes as she speaks about what would happen if her children heard these words. It’s a poignant moment, I heard the whirr of the camera as Heidi’s eye’s peered through the viewfinder to capture it.
Lucia spoke about why she wrote but also admitted regret at having done so. She felt it was rash, perhaps somewhat irresponsible on her part. Her’s is a voice though that refuses to be extinguished and the flip-side of these YouTube videos is that the clip of Ralon had contributed toward his arrest. If Lucia’s case reaches a conclusion, however, it would be without precedent.
“Hearing Lucia speak of her children has sown a few telling glances between Heidi and I. We have no children yet to be concerned with on our jaunts. We have chosen this profession and have committed to it so far. Hearing her talk about her regret, her irresponsibility – it’s the shade of courage we don’t see – the self-criticism that seems to have nurtured her into a mother and perhaps now a better journalist. There will always be a pinprick of doubt when you write, tell these stories. It is the same for us when we shoot, capture these sad tales. How far would we go? What story would be worth your life? – Notes December 14th.
[On Guatemala: Documenting El Mano Dura]