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Disturbing Routine in Guatemala

For the experienced freelance journalist Fritz Ofner, intense situations and risky encounters constitute a rather inseparable part of his life. After his extensive travels Ofner’s first feature documentary, Evolution of Violence, proves to be natural tool to access his audiences after he first witnessed the conditions in Guatemala.

 

In October 2011, the East Silver Market presented Evolution of Violence among 11 Silver Eye Award nominees.


Disturbing Routine in Guatemala
An interview with Fritz Ofner about the making of Evolution of Violence
Ondřej Kuhn


Of all American countries, why did you pick up Guatemala? Was it statistics? Someone’s hint, or prior experience? 

The first time I travelled to Guatemala was in 1997, shortly after the peace treaty was signed. At that time I heard about the atrocities of the civil war, and about the genocide on Mayan population. The traumas of the war were present and I could feel it very strongly. I also heard that the origin of the conflict had a lot to do with bananas, US military intervention and the cold war. In 2004 I went again to Guatemala, and the violence of the war started to take its roots in society. In 2008 I returned for 9 months and started to film. Violence had pervaded all aspects of life. People would talk about robbings, killings, kidnappings and lynchings in a way that in other places people take about the weather. I lived this reality and had the urge to make a film about it.

 

As an experienced journalist, you would probably agree that violence is a broader issue concerning much larger area in Central and South America. What about drug wars in Mexico, Colombian cartels and guerilla wars in Peru? There seem to be various origins of violence, yet it is all there. How is Guatemalan violence different?

In this film I look at violence and its roots in a different way. For me it´s not a film specifically about Guatamala – Guatemala and bananas are rather a symbol for a world order that´s upside down. Guatemala and the banana trade are a symbol where the exploitation of a resource creates a spiral of violence which is disguised by cynical politic rhetoric. The same examples can be found in the drug trade which brings some havoc on Mexico and Colombia. There is a high demand for certain products in the western world – be it Cocaine or bananas – and along its production and trade routes few people make high profits whereas many people suffer from the side effects – like poverty and violence. These are the same interests that drove the Conquistadores to Latin America – to exploit the resources of the continent, whatever the human cost may be.

 

Besides the criticism of Guatemalan officials, your film points out at the interest of the world’s leading economics, especially USA, in the control of the third world. That is no secret. However, you rather show the consequences of those efforts. Who should take responsibility now?

In the end of the film there is one statistic: The possibility of dying in a violent way in Guatemala is three times as high as in Iraq. The Iraq invasion had some similarities with the Guatemala invasion in 1954. Iraqi society will suffer from the aftermaths of this war for generations. If we talk about responsibility, I think it´s about consciousness. Our wealth is sustained by an economy that creates a lot of misery. That´s no secret again, but the change in economic policies can only come from a change in people’s consciousness.

 

After seeing the film, one feels Guatemalans are left on their own, but with no serious prospects for a change. May another international intervention, military or non-military, in the Central and South America have any positive effect?

Most people I have met are pessimistic that the situation in Guatemala will improve. There are presidential elections going on right now and it is most likely that the next Guatemalan president will be Perez Molina, a former General who was in charge during the Genocide. These perpetrators of the civil war era are still in charge and subdue the justice system in order to never be hold accountable for their crimes against humanity. Therefore, the justice system is weak, and cannot not hold up to the violence that’s present everywhere.

 

In the film there are several cold war US newsreel clips you employed to endorse the wrongdoing of banana trade and communist fears. Didn’t you think of giving the US chance to comment on that nowadays?

No. I was not interested in interviewing US officials. The archive material serves another purpose. The film portrays people whose life is influenced by violence: a group of crime scene journalists, a social worker who helps victims of violence, a former Guerilla fighter, a village where a massacre happened, and a soldier who committed atrocities – I wanted to link these stories with archive material, to introduce a new aspect - the aspect of economy, politics and cynical political rhetoric.

 

You also never confronted Guatemalan officials. Do you think their attitude and opinions would be worthless or they would not fit in the structure of the film, in your concept?

I do show the officials and their attitude. Just think about the judge falling asleep during a murder trial, or the police force attacking the angry mob. I tried to be as observational as possible, only when I could not tell an aspect of the story in this way, I resorted to interviews.

 

In Evolution of Violence you can see faces being drawn to crime scenes and almost cynically observing the corpses, smiling when attacks occur. Did you feel that death and violence in Guatemala is some sort of spectacle? A show?

Most of the time I did not view this joking and laughing at crime scenes as cynical, but rather as a way to deal with this brutal reality. Most people grew up in this culture of violence, they don´t know another reality. It still it affects them a lot. When the journalists laugh or sing, it’s rather a way of dealing with this anxiety. The media uses and exploits this violence for their own purpose.

 

What about crowd psychosis growing into violence? Nowadays you see it everywhere in the world and thus it might not be just Guatemala's specialty. Do you agree it is inherent to humans?

The film shows an angry mob, demanding justice, attacking the police, and later burning down the houses of people who supposedly formed a kidnapping-gang. I agree that a desire for justice is inherent to humans. If this justice cannot be provided by the state, crowd psychosis can turn to violence. In Guatemala, only 3 percent of murder cases are solved, which means that 97 percent of murders are not punished. This creates a situation where people believe that they have to take justice into their own hands. Lynchings are happening on a weekly basis in Guatemala, but most of all they are an expression of a desire for justice.

 

Filming in such a dangerous place about the actual source of the danger must have been mentally demanding and stressful. How did you cope with that?

I had strong bonds with my protagonists, and this comradeship helped me through those difficult moments. Most of the time, I was filming alone, without crew, and spent a lot of time with them. It´s easier to face this harsh reality, if there is the feeling of mutual respect and sympathy between you and the protagonist. Also, trusting the risk assessment of my protagonists helped me stay clear of danger and problems.

 

Were there moments when you stopped being a documentarian and thought of yourself rather as a civil rights fighter or a therapist?

First and foremost I am a human being and when I go out to make a film I make it clear that I am there to make a film, that’s my purpose. But being there as a foreigner with a camera, that is a statement in itself. Most people welcomed me to film because it is a form of being a witness, a witness to the crimes that happened to them, a witness to a situation that needs to be changed. For other people, like the soldier, telling the stories about the atrocities he committed was like a relief to him.

 

How did you gain trust of all the protagonists you filmed during your stay in Guatemala? Was it the fact that you are a documentarian and have the possibility to make a personal story public?

Through time. Over a 3 year period I spent more than a year filming in Guatemala. So most people I visited again and again. Maybe the first time people are reserved, but after coming back to them again and again, they warm up and open up to you.

 

Do you now feel responsible for Guatemala's violent story? Can you imagine coming back one day to shoot more about it?

Currently we are planning the presentation of the film in Guatemala. I already showed rough cuts to university students and fellow filmmakers there. The discussion that followed was always very inspiring. Violence is already the biggest topic in Guatemala. This film might give the discussion a new aspect. But I don´t think that I will make another film in Guatemala in the near future.


This interview was first published in October 2011 in IDF's industry paper Industry Reel #1.

 

Evolution of Violence

 
 
Director: Ofner Fritz
Producer: Neumann Oliver
Production company: FreibeuterFilm KG

Evolution der Gewalt , Austria, 2011, 77 min, 35 mm, History, Human Rights, Politics, Social Issues

Guatemala, labeled a banana republic, is one of the most violent countries in the world. In 4 episodes the film tells us the story of those, for whom violence is an everyday business: a group of crime scene journalists, a village fighting for a cemetery after a horrible massacre, and a social worker supporting women who are victims of violence. A country without security and justice, where impunity reigns. When justice fails, people are pushed to the ultimate act of violence - lynching. The film traces the roots of violence and portrays people struggling for decency in an unjust society.
 


Related Articles:
Film of the Week: Evolution of Violence
Silver Eye Awards 2011 Nominees