On Friday night filmmakers Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís presented their 2011 film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator to a crowded Tisch auditorium. A sequel to Yates’ earlier When the Mountains Tremble, the film narrates the effort to bring the Guatemalan generals responsible for mass killings in the Mayan highlands to justice, and specifically to face charges in a Spanish court.
Coming off the back of all the KONY2012/White Saviour Industrial Complex talk that’s been bouncing around the internet (and getting rehashed on this site), what struck me about the film was the absolute necessity of the involvement of outsiders in the search for justice. While the most emotional moments of the film came when locals expressed their burning need for answers and closure, there would have been no hope of them achieving this without foreign lawyers, activists, and filmmakers.
In the 1980s Yates was able to use her foreignness to gain access to both the highland guerilla groups, and the military who were hunting and massacring them. Working in remote, indigenous communities, she provided skills and technology that no one in the community would have been able to provide for themselves. Given that marginalised groups are often the most lacking in education and resources, and are also often the most likely to face repression or scapegoating, this creates a strong rationale for foreign involvement in some situations.
I still think analysis of the White Saviour Industrial Complex is vitally important - much of what Teju Cole has written still rings true to me - but works like Granito serve as a reminder that intervention may still have a vital place to play in the world. While critique of the Saviour Complex is important, so is acknowledging that there are situations in the world in which a saviour is desperately needed.