A powerful, personal story of state-sponsored terror in Guatemala and the lasting effects it has had on families, “The Echo of Pain of the Many” is a timely testament to the brave, untiring efforts of Guatemalans to demand justice and dent the country’s long-standing veil of impunity.
Introducing the film at a London screening on Wednesday, director Ana Lucia Cuevas explained that the title derives from the fact that her own story reflects the painful experience of many thousands of Guatemalans during the country’s decades-long armed conflict. In 1984, her activist student brother Carlos was abducted at the hands of the state. His forced disappearance (and subsequent torture and murder), like that of countless other Guatemalan civilians classed as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas, or anyone seeking change, was the product of a deliberate governmental policy of terrorising the population—a policy supported with money, arms and training from the Reagan administration.
Living abroad in exile for over a decade, it was only in 1999 that Cuevas found out her brother had in fact been killed three months after he was kidnapped. She learned this through the release of an astonishing document—the so-called “death squad dossier” listing with cold bureaucratic precision all the alleged subversives whom the military had abducted, with cryptic annotations marking those who had been killed. “Until then, I’d thought he might still be alive”, Cuevas said in an interview.
The film, documenting Cuevas’s return to Guatemala to investigate her brother’s case and to hear others’ stories, is at heart a moving exploration of how Guatemalans have coped in the aftermath of unspeakable horrors. We hear harrowing testimony from survivors of the military’s so-called “scorched earth” campaigns—brutal massacres of indigenous communities and destruction of their homes, rendering many Guatemalans starving refugees in their own country. And we learn of the widowed women in the city who relied on each other for strength as they raised infants alone, not knowing what fate had befallen their husbands. Their demands for answers from the state fell on deaf ears at best, and at worst were met with further repression. Carlos’s wife, Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, was a founder of Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), a support movement for relatives of desaparecidos, and she met a particularly brutal fate in 1985. She was tortured and killed along with her brother, and most cruelly, her two-year-old son. Their bodies were left in the street, no doubt to serve as a stark warning.
For almost three decades, thousands of Guatemalans have been unable to properly mourn loved ones or obtain the barest official recognition of what they have suffered. However, as the film recounts, that has changed in recent years. Internationally mediated post-conflict truth mechanisms have led to acknowledgement by the state of its gross human rights violations, and in some cases presidential apologies to families—including to Cuevas and her mother. And we witness how efforts to locate and identify the remains of disappeared persons have allowed many families to finally lay their loved ones to rest. As a family lays flowers on a grave towards the end of the film, one can only guess at what this measure of closure feels like after being denied it for so long.
Pieces of the puzzle are provided by various actors involved in the process of recovering the truth about what happened to Carlos and to countless Guatemalans. Uncovered archival documents, forensic anthropologists, and personal witnesses help to build a story of terrible violence perpetrated by the state against its own people.
The film ends on the encouraging note that trials have been brought against members of the military for some of the atrocities visited upon participants in the film and their loved ones. Featured in particular are the events at Choatalum, and the corresponding trial. A lawyer being interviewed laments that the intellectual authors of the war-era crimes have not yet been put on trial. Watching the film now, however, we know this is fortunately no longer true, as then-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was just a week ago convicted for his command role in the 1982 genocide against the Ixil people. Watching archive footage of Ríos Montt in the film, speaking almost jovially about being a ‘subversive against subversion’, is particularly unsettling in light of what has now been authoritatively found by a court of law.
The verdict is not final, but as Cuevas said at the premiere, the simple fact of the judgment means that people are no longer afraid of speaking openly about what happened. Making the facts of the conflict known is Cuevas’s goal with this film, which she is already using as a tool to raise awareness in Guatemala. The response to screenings thus far has been very positive, particularly from younger viewers, for whom the film is powerfully informative about a part of their history many of them knew very little about. It also contributes to the ongoing recovery of collective memory so important for the pursuit of justice.
“The Echo of Pain of the Many” will be screened by Amnesty in London later this year.