Share story

MEXICO CITY — “When the Mountains Tremble” was an award-winning movie that awakened wide attention to the war in Guatemala. But at least one thing turned out to be wrong — and filmmaker Pamela Yates says she’s going to set it right.

A dramatic scene from the 1983 documentary will be corrected to show that the Batzul massacre highlighted in the film was committed not by the military, but by leftist rebels disguised as soldiers.

“We intend to make a correction that will clarify what happened,” Yates said. “It stands as a reminder of the terrible human costs of the violence in 1982-83.”

She said she will also amend a 2011 follow-up documentary, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

In 1982, Yates and her team traveled to a mountain village where residents were mourning over the bodies of 17 men. In the documentary, women in traditional dress are heard wailing, their faces shown up-close as others look over the bloodied bodies. When asked which group was responsible, one woman, speaking in the local Quiché language, responds: “It was the same as a soldier’s uniform. They said: ‘We are soldiers.’ ”

Human-rights reports, however, later indicated the killings were committed by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in retaliation for the villagers’ decision to collaborate with the government. In her statement, Yates pointed to a 1999 report published by the Commission for Historical Clarification.

Yates said that during a return trip in 2011, she spoke with the woman featured in the scene and with other villagers to confirm the findings. “What our guides from Batzul, victims of the massacre, asked of us is that we make clear that the guerrillas and not the Army carried it out,” she wrote in her statement, issued last month.

She did not specify how the films will be corrected. In an email, she said: “At this point it is premature to say just how I will modify the earlier films.”

David Stoll, an anthropology professor at Middlebury College who has worked extensively in Guatemala, said Yates’ original depiction of the Batzul massacre could be attributed to the “fog of war.”

He questioned, though, why it took Yates so long to check the facts and why the footage from Batzul was reused in “Granito,” even after the rebels’ responsibility had surfaced. “People like Pam were not nearly as skeptical of the guerrillas as they should have been,” he said.

Upon its release, “When the Mountains Tremble” won the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival and other honors, and helped raise the profile of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Long viewed as one-sided repression by the brutal governments of the time, the 1960-96 civil war that claimed about 200,000 lives now is being recognized as more complex.

Human-rights reports agree the Guatemalan army committed about 93 percent of the killings. A United Nations truth commission report attributed 3 percent to the leftist guerrillas. Responsibility for the other 4 percent remains unclear.

Guatemala is engaged in a prolonged struggle to bring those responsible for wartime massacres to justice. On Friday, a court issued the first conviction against a leftist guerrilla commander for a massacre.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.