This is an artfully made documentary about a journalist-turned-government-press-secretary, which reveals a lot of about a terrible time in Guatemala’s history that I just knew nothing about. It’s a little short on context despite the fact that it clearly assumes a lack of knowledge about Guatemalan history, but it is still a fascinating attempt to examine a man’s personal choice at a time when such choices were very difficult.
So this film is the story of a journalist who went to work as a press secretary for the Ministry of the Interior during the Guatemalan Civil War. It turns out, he was a mole (“topo” means mole in Spanish) for one of the groups fighting against the government. The film begins with him testifying at a hearing about crimes against humanity and his experience is used to frame the larger story of trying to come to terms with this terrible time in Guatemalan history.
I know nothing about Guatemala beyond its location, a little bit of stuff about the Mayans, and some stuff about US interventions and fruit company antics. So this film was a welcome one, alerting me to some really awful things that I had never heard about, during their Civil War. For example, did you know that Guatemalan students and indigenous peoples occupied the Spanish Embassy to draw international attention to their plight and the Guatemalan government just burned them to death? I’m amazed I’d never heard of this before. (I’m also amazed all Spain did was terminate diplomatic relations. Can you imagine if this had happened at American or Russian Embassy???)
The film is personal and heartfelt. I felt like it was fairly artistically composed despite the cliche of filmstock being overused. But there are two stories here trying to be told, and I’m not sure there’s enough film for either. On the one hand, you have the story of the mole. On the other, you have the story of the trauma of the Civil War, and what the filmmaker believes is a deliberate forgetting. Both are interesting stories, but neither are fully told.
In particular, it feels like the film assumes that its audience doesn’t know about the Civil War. But then, at the same time, it assumes we know something about the protagonist, because it doesn’t give enough of his story. We don’t fully realize for most of the film that most or all of his friends thought he was a traitor. We need to know that earlier and it would be nice if we knew more of what his life was like before, during and after. Instead, we get a meditation on how the Guatemalan government actively tried to destroy the records of this time. And that’s fine, but it’s arguably a separate story from the story of this incredibly brave man.
It’s still a fascinating film, and I learned a lot about a country I don’t know enough about. But I think its reach exceeded its grasp.