Documentary Analysis Essay on When the Mountains Tremble

Published: 2021-07-16
704 words
3 pages
6 min to read
Middlebury College
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Movie review
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When the Mountains Tremble is a 1982 documentary about the Guatemalan Armys repression against the Mayan indigenous people. The film was produced by Skylight Pictures and directed by Thomas Sigel and Pamela Yates. It focuses on the experiences of the Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who narrates about the changes that happen to her after the deaths of her father and her two brothers. Shot in 1982 this documentary attempts to show the whole world of the brutal civil war that the United States was funding. The primary objective of this film was to raise awareness about the extreme human rights violations in Guatemala by telling the stories of human struggles. I am convinced that the film was also seeking justice for the Guatemalan citizens who were affected by the civil war.

Pamela Yates was able to secure an exclusive interview with the cruel Army General Jose Efrain Rios Montt who apparently was leading the civil war and later became the president of Guatemala after a successful coup. She also interviews other top military officials including Hector Mario Lopez who was involved in organizing the war against the Mayan indigenous people. Rigoberta Menchu who was a key character in this film was a Mayan human rights defender who had fled into exile after her family members were all killed. Menchu explains how the civil war unfolded and the injustices that were done to her community including the senseless murders that were undertaken by the Guatemalan army.

The directors of this film wanted to determine the role of the US in destroying the democracy of other countries by imposing a regime of brutal military dictatorship. Near the beginning of the documentary, the directors clinically feature two dramatic re-enactments involving Guatemalan officer and American Ambassador. In my opinion, the main goal of this stylistic break was to show the viewers about the United States interest in Guatemalan affairs. Pamela Yates has also started working on a new documentary dubbed Granito which is an extension of this documentary. She explains that after shooting When the Mountains Tremble, she realized that the Guatemalans had never given up on finding justice and most significantly uncovering the collective memory of the buried past. Therefore, she has decided to produce another film which will highlight the courage of these empowered people.

Thomas Sigel who also doubles up as the cinematographer has done a good job in ensuring that the visual images presented in the film enhance our understanding of the subject and period. I mean we can establish the guerilla soldiers, the Mayan people, and the American officials. The costumes we see in the film portrays the early 1980s sense of style. Moreover, the set which shows the graves of nearly fourteen thousand Guatemalans allows the viewers to understand the depth of the impacts of the civil war. Rigoberta Menchu serves as the story teller, and her indigenous voice allows us to understand the material culture of the Mayan people. Menchus significance in the documentary is evident as she delivers the first dialogue. The blue ensemble that Menchu wears makes her stand out from the black background.

The scenes of the dinner with CIA operative and the Guatemalan president were juxtaposed with monologues by Menchu at one point. In fact, Menchus voice acts as a voice-over to the re-enacted sequence. Moreover, the integration of fiction-based conventions of the director and the images of Menchu makes this film to stand out. In the studio, where Menchu is interviewed, Thomas Sigel uses close up shots severally to allow the viewers to learn from the reactions of Menchu as she continues to narrate the events. The directors documented the events in this film through the eyes of the Mayan people and flashbacks have often been used when explaining the experiences of Menchu. The song used in the film was composed by Ruben blades mainly for the film. Pamela Yates explains that the story in this documentary is based on the actual events that were happening in Guatemala. If you want to understand the historical injustices that occurred to Mayan People of Guatemala, this is the film to watch.


Loucky, J. (1985). : When the Mountains Tremble. 1983 . Peter Kinoy. ; El Norte. . Anna Thomas. American Anthropologist, 87(4), 992-994. doi:10.1525/aa.1985.87.4.02a00810

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