Among the 17 award-winning films in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which is held in New York from June 11 to 21, is “Burden of Peace.” This brilliant documentary powerfully chronicles the day-to-day work of Claudia Paz y Paz, the first female attorney general of Guatemala, a country ravaged for years by a brutal civil war. That war, which took place between 1960 and 1996 but witnessed some of the worst violence in 1980–83, saw nearly 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayans, systematically massacred.
As attorney general from 2010 to 2014, Paz y Paz fought to bring justice to the victims of the genocide, as well as to prosecute members of deadly criminal gangs aligned with Mexican drug cartels.
However, her campaign to end impunity for corrupt police officers, prosecutors and politicians was cut short by seven months, ended by the county’s powerful business and political elite whose personal interests were threatened. Her landmark conviction of former dictator Efraín Rios Montt – the first ever conviction for genocide in a national court – was quickly overturned. Fearing violent reprisals, Paz y Paz was forced to leave the country.
Paul Nash of the Foreign Policy Association spoke with director Joey Boink about “Burden of Peace,” the challenges of he faced while filming in one of the world’s more dangerous countries, and human rights in Guatemala.
Q: Why did you feel it was important to make this film?
Joey Boink: When I began working on “Burden of Peace,” Guatemala was in the midst of a security crisis. I had lived in Guatemala before and noticed how the culture of violence affected every Guatemalan. Ninety-seven percent of the murder cases went unsolved, while the country’s homicide rate was among the three highest in the world. People did not expect the state to address corruption and other crimes.
That changed after Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed to lead the prosecutor’s office. She was very outspoken on the need to change the justice system. Not only was she the first female to lead the office but also the first person with a background in human rights advocacy. Her mission to promote justice in Guatemala inspired me, together with my colleague Sander Wirken, to start working on this film.
Q: From day one, Paz y Paz gave you and your crew access to her work as attorney general. How did that collaboration come about?
Joey Boink: When Sander and I got to meet with Paz y Paz, we talked about our plans for the film and our own experiences in the country. We had both lived and worked in Guatemala since 2006, Sander as co-founder of an NGO dedicated to education and I as a filmmaker. During that time we learned how the violence and corruption affected the whole society. For example, bus drivers and people with small businesses were routinely extorted by local gangs and forced to pay them for “protection.” Those who didn’t pay were killed. Their families didn’t lay charges – they were simply too afraid and had no trust in the prosecution process.
We told Paz y Paz that with this film we wanted to discover how on earth it is possible to fight corruption and impunity in a country like this – one of the most dangerous places in the world. She agreed to allow us to follow her with a camera and gave us access to all levels of the prosecutor’s office.
Q: In the film Paz y Paz refers to you jokingly as “Big Brother.” Did she give you access to demonstrate her commitment to transparency?
Joey Boink: In her inauguration speech, Paz y Paz told journalists that the prosecutor’s office would have nothing to hide under her leadership and that her doors would always be open. I think she saw the camera as a means of bringing extra transparency. We were given exclusive access to her day-to-day activities as attorney general. The only condition she imposed was that we would stop the camera if she was meeting with people who didn’t want to be filmed.
After some time, we were able to get closer to her private life and film her with her family at home. I think we had an advantage in gaining this level of access because we are foreigners and were working there on a long-term basis. As foreigners, there was less risk we could be extorted by gangs to hand over copies of our footage. And as documentary filmmakers, we had a deeper human interest in this story, which required us to film behind the scenes rather than only the press conferences for journalists.
Q: Do you think films like this can help to stop the cycle of violence and curb human rights abuses, especially in a small developing country like Guatemala, which experiences more than 20 murders a day?
Joey Boink: A film itself cannot bring an end to such a cycle of violence, but it is my hope that Claudia’s story will inspire a few young people in countries like Guatemala to understand that the cycle can be changed and that you do not need to negotiate justice to achieve justice.
Our screenings in Europe and the United States have helped to generate awareness of conditions in Guatemala. Many people previously had no idea of the human rights crisis in the country, let alone the work of Claudia Paz y Paz.
The Dutch foreign minister was present at the film’s world premiere at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague. He recently visited Guatemala and warned against corruption, and he met with Paz y Paz in Mexico. I’m proud that the film has helped a little to put Guatemala on the political agenda and that people around the world are learning about Paz y Paz. If something were to happen to her, she will not be alone.
Q: One gets the sense from watching the film that many Guatemalans have become numbed to violence. Was that generally your experience?
Joey Boink: It is very normal for people to walk the streets in Guatemala with a gun in their pocket. Cars are searched for fruit trafficking, but not for weapons trafficking. When we went out to follow the homicide team of the Guatemala City Prosecutor’s Office, we didn’t have to wait more than fifteen minutes before a case came up. At the end of the 24-hour shift, the team had worked seven homicide scenes – and they called that “a quiet day.”
We used to play soccer with Guatemalan friends every week. One day, one of the boys didn’t show up. He had been run over by a bus and died. After this tragedy, the bus driver just drove on. Our friends said it was useless to go to the police because they wouldn’t do anything.
These are just some examples of how crime and violence has become a regular part of daily life in Guatemala.
Q: One reason for the violence is impunity – the impunity enjoyed both by those who committed crimes during the civil war and those in drug gangs today. What do you think it will take to finally end impunity?
Joey Boink: Violence and impunity are regional problems across Central America. Drug gangs that move cocaine from Colombia to the United States operate across borders and continue to grow in power. They have more powerful weapons than the police have and they have the money to bribe politicians, police officers, and people in the judiciary. As long as there is no regional answer to these problems, impunity will reign and Central America will continue to be the world’s homicide capital.
The impunity enjoyed by those who committed crimes during the civil war shows you that the power structures established by the military regimes at the time still hold sway today. But if you look at the current protests against the government in Guatemala – the largest in decades – you see that something is changing. People are done with these structures of impunity and are demanding change. I hope that social efforts and better regional cooperation at institutional and diplomatic levels will bring an end to impunity.
Q: To some, “Burden of Peace” might seem like a record of futility because there is no real closure for the victims. What would you say to such people who interpret it that way?
Joey Boink: I see the result of the genocide trial so far as representing two steps forward and one step backwards. To many survivors who gave testimony in court, it meant a lot to be able to tell their stories in front of a national judge. The trial allowed many Guatemalans to hear what happened to the Maya people in the Ixil area for the first time in their lives. Efraín Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years for committing genocide and crimes against humanity, but the constitutional court ruled that the prosecutor had made procedural errors and annulled the sentence. To many, that meant steps have been taken towards justice but that there is still a lot to fight for.
It would be too cynical to call the story a record of futility knowing that survivors feel proud to have been able to share their long-hidden experiences, that Rios Montt was sentenced for his crimes in a national court, and that lawyers and prosecutors continue to make efforts after each victory and each loss. There is no real closure for the victims of the armed conflict, but the people of Guatemala have not given up their struggle for justice.
Q: Why is the film titled the “burden” of peace?
Joey Boink: When the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Bert Koenders, spoke at the film’s world premiere, he explained our title better than I could have done myself. He said: “The impact of civil conflict persists long after peace agreements have been signed. When violence has been the norm for so long, and there has been no law and order, the burden of peace is the long road to justice that begins where conflict ends.” I think the film illustrates this long road to justice.
A second interpretation centers on Claudia’s personal struggle and sacrifice. Claudia’s surname, Paz y Paz, means “Peace and Peace.” It’s as though she was born with the heavy responsibility to fight for peace.
Q: Were you threatened at all during the making of this film, or ever feel your life was in danger?
Joey Boink: I never felt threatened. We got used to a life in which we could not tell everyone exactly what we were doing. Things that were normal in Guatemala seemed strange after we got back to the Netherlands. In Guatemala we couldn’t just hail any cab; we always had to travel with the same driver. We couldn’t talk about delicate topics on the phone because there was a risk it had been tapped. We couldn’t walk the streets at night. We learned when and with whom we could speak and trust in order to avoid possible dangers.
Q: Paz y Paz is very soft-spoken and compassionate, and yet she displays a steely, unflinching adherence to justice and the rule of law. What do you think people can learn from her?
Joey Boink: Over the course of three years we got to spend about a year with Claudia. We spent a lot of that time around her office and traveling with her through the beautiful country. Claudia is a person with an extreme dedication to justice. That strong commitment makes her outspoken and a person who dares to take on challenges and accept the potential risks. However, she is also a very humble person who doesn’t care about social status or social background. The elite attacked her for being dressed as a “hippie” in the prosecutor’s office, but many other people admired her for her transparency and genuine interest in listening to the families of victims. Sometimes it was hard to see the level of pressure under which Claudia had to operate.
If there is one thing I think people can learn from her, it is this: one can be humble and friendly but at the same time strict and clear. She may be soft-spoken and compassionate, but her policy was always clear: justice is not negotiable. If there is a case, there is a case, no matter if the perpetrator is a druglord, a politician, or a businessman.
Q: How does this film differ from other documentaries you’ve made on subjects like education in Guatemala, child labor in India, or the Millennium Development Goals in Latin America?
Joey Boink: This is the first feature-length documentary I’ve directed, and it is also the first feature film of the producer Framewerk. In terms of the time that the team invested in the film, it isn’t comparable to any other project I’ve worked on. It’s also the first festival film I’ve made, which has allowed me to discover a lot about those aspects of the documentary world.
Q: You financed the film partly through crowdfunding. How did that work?
Joey Boink: The producers of Framewerk organized a crowdfunding campaign while Sander and I were still in Gautemala. We needed funding for post-production, from editing to distribution. The campaign was focused on a Dutch audience and conducted through the Dutch platform cinecrowd.nl.
I was afraid that the target of €30,000 was too ambitious, but we managed to raise a bit more than that: €33,455. It turned out to be the most successful crowdfunding campaign for a Dutch documentary, and 436 people in total became sponsors. We managed to attract a wide range of people through media attention in Dutch magazines, newspapers, and radio stations. We offered various perks to investors, from online access to the film to tickets to the world premiere or having Framewerk produce a video for a sponsor’s organization. Some people thought it would be an easy source of funding. But it was a lot of work for the whole team to manage the campaign. I would recommend that anyone who wants to launch a similar campaign should not plan on doing anything apart from that campaign before and during the process.
Q: Paz y Paz says the film has not ended because the story is about the country as much as it is about her. Do you have any plans to do more work on the subject? Can you even work safely in that country again?
Joey Boink: I am very motivated to continue making films about human rights issues and human rights defenders. My next film will not be in Guatemala, though. That has nothing to do with safety issues. I want to learn from people in other cultures. I’ll always feel connected with Guatemala, though. I have very close friends there, so I hope to go back from time to time – but I don’t want to visit Guatemala’s homicide scenes ever again.
Q: What do you think American business executives and foreign-policy makers should take away from this film?
Joey Boink: I would encourage American executives to do business in Guatemala, but to be aware of who they are doing business with and who in Guatemala benefits from their business. Guatemala is a beautiful country that is rich in natural resources. However, the country’s wealth is very unequally divided. There is no other country in Latin America with such a large gap between the rich and the poor. The Maya population is often not considered when a mining or hydroelectric project is initiated on their land. They do not profit from the gold or the energy that is extracted in their regions. In fact, they are forced to leave. If they stay, the company’s operations destroy their source of drinking water. Local mayors, governors, and the state make agreements with foreign parties without consulting the people. A huge amount ends in the pockets of those individual stakeholders.
There are cooperativas, local organized farmers who export their goods, which do benefit the communities. I would encourage American executives to do business with such groups.
Our film gives a good sense of Guatemala’s difficult political and judicial landscape. I think foreign-policy makers should take this away from the film: that Guatemala is not a failed state, but rather a state in which many people are fighting for justice.
However, there is a small minority of people in power with such enormous influence that characters like Ríos Montt are able to run for congress years after committing the most heinous crimes imaginable, and that someone like former president Alfonso Portillo, who was in jail just a few months ago in the United States for money laundering, is able to run for president again. Meanwhile, someone like Claudia Paz y Paz, who has made clear progress against impunity in her country (a 12-fold increase in the number of the homicides solved under her leadership), can be framed in the Guatemalan media as a Marxist who is betraying her country and has to pay for her crimes.
If you have the right connections in Guatemala, you can get away with anything. But if you try to fight for equality and justice, you’ll wind up in trouble. On television and in newspapers you’ll be portrayed as someone trying to “destabilize” the community. The words “Human Rights” are framed in a negative context, as a curse. People like Claudia Paz y Paz who fight against corruption and impunity are the underdog. They have the choice not to speak out or to live in fear for their lives. You have to be aware that in Guatemalan politics the unthinkable is possible.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated the Guatemalan civil war took place between 1980 and 1983. It has been amended to reflect that the war took place between 1960 and 1996, although some of the worst violence took place between 1980 and 1983.