Burden of Peace (Joey Boink, 2015)

Part of the WatchingHumanRights coverage of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (NYC) 2015

Looking in on “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world” a Dutch film crew follow Claudia Paz y Paz during her time as Guatemala’s first female Attorney General. With round the clock security you immediately feel this unassuming and soft-spoken person is not cut out for this job. Narco wars rage between the cartels and the state while cycles of impunity reach back to Guatemala’s brutal civil war. Archive footage captures the chilling depths to which the country sank through complete lawlessness and scorched earth polcies of the US backed military. “We can’t look at the present without understanding the past” says Paz y Paz and the documentary certainly follows her twin track approach fighting impunity.

One scene in particular is quite illustrative of her uphill task. When visiting a far flung town she criticised local police and the public prosecution team for their complete failure in solving murder cases. Afterwards in a hushed almost fearful voice she recounts that ever had she encountered such levels of corruption. But she appears to gets results. We see her attempts seeing her pushing for proper use of crime databases. At one meeting her staff reveal how the term “unknown” has been entered in 26 different ways. Although her approach is methodically realised, through small but systematic steps, the film thankfully is light on technical detail and concentrates on the divided political atmosphere which threatens her work.

When she turns her attention to the massacres of indigenous people from the late 70’s some political elites are unnerved. She is slated as “militant human rights” person and ideological “Marxist” in the same breath. Cold War rhetoric is never far from the surface and as she probes into the past elements emerge work against her. She secures the arrest of a former President charged with committing genocide, harrowing testimonies of villager are played over the happenings of the court with dramatic effect. A successful prosecution would be first time a domestic court convicts a former head of state. This is tense stuff and its international significance is not lost in the film, nor is the local.

This is as much as story about transitional justice as it is about the public prosecution. It raises questions about law’s role in national reconciliation. Apart from these big questions one of the films strengths is how it ties past corruption and present day criminality – “where there were massacres there are now mines” explains one indigenous villager. However the film does fail to grasp exactly how and why she was successful in her job – the team around her and her support base are never properly explored. Burden of Peace is a well-executed piece, it is entertaining and gives a fantastic insight into a legal system precariously operating within deep rooted political instability.

Gearóid Ó Cuinn

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