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Filmmakers Pamela Yates And Paco de Onís Chronicle Human Rights Issues To Spur Social Change

Oct 2, 2015

Pamela Yates’ and Paco de Onís’ introduction to filmmaking wasn’t typical.

Yates grew up in a small Irish-American community in the Appalachian Mountains, far from South America where most of her current film work takes place. During her childhood, stories were the common currency. That love of storytelling, and her exposure to economic disparity, inspired her to combine those two passions to make a difference.

“Because of the extremes of wealth and poverty in the area of the country I grew up in, I was always interested in righting that kind of historical wrong,” Yates said. “I figured in the United States, the richest country in the world, it doesn't have to be that way.”

Paco de Onís is the son of a journalist, and his father’s work exposed him to dictatorships and military violence, and he grew up watching Latin American countries transition to democracy.

“That's been a big source of inspiration for me,” de Onís said. “I think it's a great social justice, human rights story how the human rights movement contributed to this change of a whole continent.”

When these human rights activists and documentary filmmakers started their partnership Skylight Pictures, they wanted to pull back the curtain on genocide and dictatorships.

Their documentary, The Reckoning, follows the International Criminal Court’s challenge to fight human rights violations and establish authority in its earliest years. Yates and de Onís, both supporters of the ICC, wanted to convince viewers the United States should join.

“We tried to really make the audience feel like they were looking over the shoulder of the chief prosecutor of the court. Where were the worst egregious cases in the world, what was the evidence that was available, who were the alleged perpetrators and how were they going to gather the evidence and bring those perpetrators to The Hague and to trial, how could a tiny court in The Hague actually change the paradigm of world justice?” Yates said.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator focuses on the mass murder of Mayan people in Guatemala in the 1980s - an issue close to both de Onís and Yates.

Yates was working in Latin America around the time of this genocide and heard about journalists who were killed who were covering the civil war in Guatemala.

“I had read a book called Bitter Fruit which was about the CIAs overthrow in 1954 of the Democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala,” Yates said. “And it made me so mad that the United States had been on the wrong side of history in ushering in these military dictatorships that I felt, as an American citizen, I wanted to go there, investigate the story and tell the world what was happening in Guatemala.”

De Onís grew up around similar military violence. He says film is a means to make a difference in the sphere of social justice. Granito allowed him to share the events that plagued his home as a child through a compelling medium.

Through Granito: How to Nail a Dictator and The Reckoning, Yates and de Onís decided global economic inequality is the genesis of human rights violations. They decided to document economic empowerment of women through Fundación Capital, an organization that aims to provide financial stability to the poor.

“What if you could imagine a different world,” Yates said, “A world where the avenue for social change was through women and through women who have traditionally been left out of the financial system?”

This question kick-started the making of Disruption.

“That's a film that would appeal to people across the political spectrum,” de Onís said. “For one, you're ending poverty. It's about not having dependency on a government program. The whole idea behind it is for them to learn how to manage their finances and eventually get off the program.”

Yates and de Onís don’t plan to stop filmmaking any time soon. Their goal is to expose harsh issues to a myriad of people from different areas of the globe and to inspire others to make a difference.

“It's a story about all of us and how all of us can participate and add our granito,” said Yates, “Our tiny grain of sand, for positive social change.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Grillot: Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís , welcome to World Views.

Yates: Thank you.

de Onís : Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Grillot: Well the two of you are documentary filmmakers. Not just to make film, you are activists as well. Tell us a little bit about how your interest in social justice has led you to making film and how does film help you to express the kinds of subjects and issues that are important from a social justice perspective. Pamela, would you like to start?

Yates: Sure, well I'm from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania - a town of about 2,000 people. It was an Irish-American enclave and one of the currencies and trade in the town was storytelling. People were really great storytellers. They were poor, but culturally they were very rich. I like to think that, as a filmmaker, I'm carrying on the tradition of storytelling. I think, because of the extremes of wealth and poverty in the area of the country I grew up in, I was always interested in righting that kind of historical wrong. I figured in the United States, the richest country in the world, it doesn't have to be that way. I think that really formed me and it really shaped the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell as a human rights defender and as an artist.

Grillot: So Paco what about you? What is your background and how do you come to this area?

de Onís : My background - I grew up in Latin America, in Argentina and Brazil under military dictatorships. My father was a journalist - he is a journalist. He's retired now, but he reported on all those events that were happening around us. In my lifetime I've seen the whole Latin American continent shift over from military dictatorships to democracies and that's been a big source of inspiration for me. I think it's a great social justice, human rights story how the human rights movement contributed to this change of a whole continent. Now, I think, with film we can tell these human rights stories. Film has the power to create empathy in people and people can connect to the stories. That's one big reason that I think film is very effective.

Yates: You know we really came of age as film makers in parallel with the growth of the human rights movement worldwide. That movement has given us stories to tell. There have been incredible leaders of that movement who are the protagonists in our film. We also like to think that our films help grow that movement. So we've created a virtuous cycle between the film and human rights activism.

Grillot: Let's talk about region for a second. Paco, you mentioned that you grew up in Latin America, and the two of you have made film around the world. Of course you're probably best known for your film in Latin America. So what is it that draws you there? Obviously your historical background, where you come from. Pamela, how did you end up in Latin America? In particular, the film for which you were awarded a Guggenheim and which has gotten a lot of publicity - and we'll talk a little bit about that in a minute - is Granito which was filmed in Guatemala. 

Yates: I was working as a sound recordist. I really wanted to be a film director, but I didn't know how I was going to do that. I was working as a sound recordist on other people's films, watching directors work in Central America during the wars in the early 1980s. It was then that I heard about this hidden war that was happening in Guatemala, and I knew that the Guatemalan journalists who were trying to cover the war themselves were being censored or were being killed. So, I thought this was a very important story to tell. I had read a book called Bitter Fruit which was about the CIAs overthrow in 1954 of the Democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, and it made me so mad that the United States had been on the wrong side of history in ushering in these military dictatorships that I felt, as an American citizen, I wanted to go there, investigate the story and tell the world what was happening in Guatemala. So, that was the genesis. 

Grillot: For you, Paco, working in Guatemala, this brings you to your connection to Oklahoma and your work with Clyde Snow who was a forensic anthropologist and did work in this region. How did that come to be and how is it that you then came to support a lot of his work? Another way that you can promote human rights is to uncover, scientifically, what's going on in these areas. So you're doing the film work and he's doing the work on the ground. How did that work out, that partnership?

de OnísWell several years before we started filming Granito I was working on a short film, and I met Clyde Snow in Guatemala. We actually met there, prearranged because we were going to film an excavation with him. That led me to meet the person who heads the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team. His name is Fredy Peccerelli. That was a very great meeting. We remained friends after that, and then, when we went to start filming Granito, Fredy was starting a huge excavation in Guatemala City. It was because of Clyde that we knew him, and he gave us access to film. That became a very important of the film Granito. It was really Clyde's impact, not just in Guatemala, but all over Latin America and the World in teaching a whole generation of young people to be forensic anthropologists who are now doing that work. So, his impact was huge. 

Grillot: The work being done there, of course, was to note the war crimes that were being committed and to document them, but there was also an attempt to use this information at a tribunal. Can we talk a little bit about how that relates to one of your other films that came before the Granito film, The Reckoning, which is about the battle for the international criminal court? Because this notion of - you're out documenting that these things are happening. Lawyers are working on the legal side of things - people like Clyde Snow, forensic anthropologists and others that are working to provide the scientific evidence. All of this, presumably, to hold somebody accountable for what has happened in these cases, to highlight them to where they don't happen again, to prevent them in the future. How does all of this come together so that we can hold these criminals accountable, and how is it that the criminal court actually contributes to that? 

Yates: Well the International Criminal Court is the first independent international court to hold individuals accountable for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The way we try to tell the story in The Reckoning was, we tried to really make the audience feel like they were looking over the shoulder of the chief prosecutor of the court. Where were the worst egregious cases in the world, what was the evidence that was available, who were the alleged perpetrators and how were they going to gather the evidence and bring those perpetrators to The Hague and to trial, how could a tiny court in The Hague actually change the paradigm of world justice? The Reckoning is really the story of the first six tumultuous years of the International Criminal Court as all of us tried to figure out - how can we perfect international justice? These kinds of stories are really fascinating to tell "filmically" because there are so many people contributing, and there are so many fascinating stories. Sometimes it's a little daunting about how to thread all these stories together and make it coherent and not overload the audience with too much information. I feel like, since we take a long time to make our films, we really don't release the films until we get it right, and getting it right means taking the audience on a fascinating journey of how the evidence is compiled and how justice is ultimately served. 

Grillot: So as far as the criminal court goes in this particular film, what was the conclusion that you drew? This is following the chief prosecutor around the world, multiple continents, multiple cases, I presume, that he's working. How did you ultimately conclude or what did you conclude in terms of the utility of the ICC? Is it just facing too many challenges? Is it going to be successful? You said it's had very few convictions. In terms of its historical record, it's young. Is it eventually going to get where it needs to go and going to do the job it's intended to do which is to hold people accountable and to prevent these things from happening?

Yates: We try to leave it really open ended at the end of the film. In other words, we take the audience on this journey. We show them that the court is really beleaguered but ultimately we have a point of view, and our point of view is that the court is a very good thing and that there should be a universal acceptance of the court. The United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court and we really should be. We really put it back on the audience that we have the responsibility to make this the world court that it should be and not a moribund institution like other international institutions may have become. That's part of being an activist and that's part of being a human rights defender. You really want to engage the audience so that at the end of the film they feel both an emotional engagement but also that they want to do something or they want to learn more or they want to get more involved. It's up to them. I think if you make a good film, people are much more apt to do that. 

de Onís I think that also, the court, it depends on political will. Just to back up a little bit, the court came about, really, to activism of civil society organizations from around the world. They really drove the creation of this court. It's a treaty based court, so countries only are members if they want to be, if their legislature approves it. So right now there are 123 out of 193 countries in the world that are members including all of Europe and Latin America, Canada, about 30 African countries. So, there are a lot of countries that have bought in, but for the court to be effective, it's going to take time. I think it's important to remember that new jurisdictions are created like here in the U.S. and in the Wild West back in the 1800s, it took a while for legal jurisdiction to take hold and be respected and be effective. I think it's a baby court. It's just starting out. It's facing some big Goliath out there like the UN Security Council. 

Grillot: Back to Latin America then and your most recent film Disruption takes a little bit of a different turn. Tell us a little bit about this film as it focuses on strategies for financial inclusion, particularly for women, and doing so in, perhaps, a different way. It's helping women to save money as opposed to lending them money. So micro-lending is one of the most recent buzz terms used, programs used to help bring people out of poverty, but this is a very different program. So why focus on this, and how does it help empower women in a Latin American community?

de OnísWell, I think that the idea behind the program that we see in Disruption is precisely that. Women who are living in a state of marginalization because of poverty who receive cash transfers from the government - this group of activists, economists that we met and are in the film, they thought, "Let's teach these women with that cash flow that they're getting, how to save and how to manage their money rather than offer them loans, which perhaps they're not ready to take on and manage." So, it's really a financial education and even a financial citizenship program. The idea also is that it unlocks this huge potential in a country's economy and society which is the women who aren't really participating financially. So, by bringing millions of women in. In Brazil there are 15 million women who received these cash transfers, and now there's a whole huge financial education program being launched this year in Brazil for those 15 million women. 

Yates: It's really a film about economic human rights. Because of all the films that we've made, of all the films about war and about crimes against humanity - at the basis of all of this is poverty and extreme inequality. So, what if you could imagine a different world, a world where the avenue for social change was through women and through women who traditionally have been left out of the financial system? So, this is a film about possible financial citizenship as a way of reducing inequality. We thought it was some really amazing and innovative ideas, social, entrepreneurial ideas coming from the Global South that the Global North could have much to learn from. 

Grillot: So far the evidence would suggest that this is gaining ground and that this is a better approach?

Yates: Yeah, but the question our film asks is, "Can it be taken to scale?" I think the measure of its success is if it will be taken to scale, and if it will be taken to scale, then a real disruption could occur. 

Grillot: I'm going to end by coming back to this issue of documentary film and the ways in which we can learn about these things through film. I'm a documentary film buff, but some ways I'm sympathetic to these ideas and so I see these films because I'm drawn to them. To what extent do you feel that your film is reaching an audience that perhaps wouldn't necessarily be supportive of these things right off the bat? Do you feel that this is the best avenue for that? How do you get to those who really need to be changed by these ideas? 

Yates: You tell a good story. I mean, ultimately the first and foremost responsibility, I think, to reach a general audience which is our audience. We want to reach people that don't know anything about Guatemala, that don't know that the sole genocide of the Americas in the 20th Century against indigenous people happened in Guatemala. They're going to be drawn into it because it's a really good story. For each of the stories we tell we try to tease out the universal values. Yes, it's a story about Guatemala, yes it's a story about Brazil, but actually it's a story about all of us and how all of us can participate and add our granito, our tiny grain of sand, for positive social change. 

de Onís It's a constant challenge also, how to get these stories out there. We use some of the usual channels like television. Our films air on PBS. Then we do a lot of big outreach work through the web, through grassroots, screenings, and we try to reach audiences that haven't really been exposed to this. I think that with a film like Disruption, for example, that's a film that would appeal to people across the political spectrum. For one, you're ending poverty. It's about not having dependency on a government program. The whole idea behind it is for them to learn how to manage their finances and eventually get off the program. 

Yates: And you get to meet great women protagonists. 

de OnísYou meet great women. 

Grillot: Well Pamela and Paco, thank you so much for being here today and sharing your story about the work that you do. So thank you. 

de Onís & Yates: Thank you. 

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