Post-Modernity and Human Rights Activists in Latin American Cinema


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My last of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble in relation to post-modernity and human rights activists in Latin American Cinema.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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“You can say a story is fabricated. You can say a jury is corrupt. You can say a person is lying. You can say you don’t trust newspapers. But you can’t say what you just saw never happened” (Speakers, 1). This is the message written in WITNESS’s promotional video, an organization co-founded by Genesis musician Peter Gabriel that encourages worldwide human rights activists to make changes through the use of video. This objective reflects Gabriel’s message that an event should be captured by an activist to expose injustice and reveal the truth. Relating to the general topic of Latin American Cinema, three filmmakers will be discussed in relation to Peter Gabriel’s solution for truth: Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre, directors of the 2006 film Maquilapolis and Pamela Yates, director of the 1984 film When the Mountains Tremble. The main difference between the directors of each film is that Yates, unlike Funari and De La Torre, Yates, is a New York citizen and an outsider from Latin America, but they nonetheless share the same concern for each film’s subject matter. When the Mountains Tremble documents the horrific genocide of the Mayan civilians by the Guatemalan army while Maquilapolis documents the lives of maquiladora workers who are experiencing the weakening effects of the toxic industrial waste of the factories.

Both films challenge social justice while also being part of the post-modern era of documentary filmmaking. As theorist Linda Williams describes it, post-modern documentaries share the earnest approach to a subject as always but the truth is constructed by docu-auteurs who whether on or off camera have control of the shots (Williams, 104) and as writer Gloria Galindo expands on Williams’ theory, this style borrows features from fiction film in their construction (Galindo, 83). Integrating Peter Gabriel’s message of truth with Linda William’s theory of post-modernity, Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble are films that represent truth by being made in collaboration with human rights activists while the filmmakers construct the film with a post-modern approach by blurring the lines of documentary and fiction. To write chronologically, I will begin the development of my thesis with When the Mountains Tremble. 

Theorist Teresa Longo expresses the same concern I explained earlier: When the Mountains Tremble was a United States filmmaker making a film about a Third World Country. Despite the U.S. involvement, Yates was intrigued in telling a story of what she describes as a “hidden war” and led to the director making a film that was more “transcultural than ethnocentric and objectifying” (Longo, 77), meaning the director documented the genocide by the Guatemalan army through the eyes of the Maya people and not with a U.S. perspective. This was made possible by collaborating with human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu who served as a storyteller with an indigenous (meaning original and truthful) voice (Skylight Pictures, 15). Menchu’s importance in the film is evident in its opening sequence as she delivers the first dialogue. Wearing a distinct blue ensemble, Menchu stands out strong from the black background and introduces herself as part of the Maya people, giving authority to the film. This collaboration also has an important relationship to the visual imagery selected by the director and even more so to the re-enacted scenes, an aspect of the blurred lines of documentary and fiction.

Menchu introduces the re-enacted scenes based on declassified U.S. documents by stating, “However, some years ago there was hope for a democracy”. Both re-enacted scenes of the dinner with Guatemalan President and the CIA command post were juxtaposed with monologues by Menchu and at one point, her voice acts as voice-over to the reenacted sequence. This is one of the examples given by Teresa Longo that made the film transcultural as it joined images of Menchu and the fiction-based conventions of the director to explore the U.S. history in relation to the events in the Third World Country (Longo, 79). The collaboration with activists and post-modern filmmaking demonstrated in When the Mountain Trembles has been explored twenty-two years later in Maquilapolis. 

While taking a course on Latin American Cinema, professor Elizabeth Miller sparked an interesting discussion on Maquilapolis, which was that we (the class) has previously discussed the aesthetics of hunger in relation to the Cinema Novo Movement, but now with Maquilapolis, how would we describe its aesthetics of access? This was interesting as it reflects the collaboration between Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre and the maquiladora workers. The directors wanted to work with women who are activists and they taught the woman factory workers how to use a digital camera, film techniques, sound recording, and writing skills in order to tell their story (Fregoso, 3). This collaboration offered a personal insight to the women’s lifestyles while granting extraordinary access to the factories they have suffered in and the unprivileged homes they live in with their family. The access seen in the film at the factory justifies the gritty and toxic surroundings the woman are standing up against while the access in their homes and lifestyle justifies their strong-willed characteristics, making the audience realize that they deserve better. The collaboration offers subjective truth, an aspect of post-modern documentary, a mode that also includes fictional elements.

Along with this collaboration, the filmmakers combine the documentary realism with choreographed performances of the maquiladora workers that acts as the film’s fictional elements. The workers, dressed in blue, demonstrate a repeated movement of their hands that resemble the work they do in the factory.  The docu-auteurs add a personal touch to the film by juxtaposing beautiful imagery of the dance with the dark undertones of the factory. Now free from work at the factory, the film concludes with the workers slowly spreading apart from line and walking free as the camera moves further to a Bird’s-eye Point-of-View shot. Sounds like a scene in a Hollywood movie. Like Linda William’s explains, post-modern documentary take part in “a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction” (Galindo, 83). As director Funari explains, it is the combination and the dynamics you get of the performance and the standard verite elements that makes the project interesting while expressing the films themes, characters, and place (Fregoso, 176) – a true representation of facts in a post-modern approach.

To synthesize both films as a part of post-modern cinema, both films show a constructed truth by the directors with the help of human rights activists. Peter Gabriel’s WITNESS promotional video concludes by demanding to give cameras to the world to start shooting and revealing the injustices of the world (Speakers, 1), which is what Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble does effectively in collaboration with human rights activists. As Gabriel optimistically explains, this approach to a self-reflexive style of documentary is expanding especially with the technological developments of portable camera-phones where practically any human rights activist can be a docu-auteur and reveal the truth.


Galindo, Gloria. Bus 174 and Post-Modern Documentary. Theoria, Vol. 18 (1): 81-86, 2009.

Fregoso, Rosa-Linda. “Maquilapolis: An Interview with Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre”. Camera Obscura 74, Vol 25, Number 2, Duke University Press, 2010.

Longo, Teresa. “When the Mountains Tremble: Images of Ethnicity in a Transcultural Context” Framing Latin American Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 189-206.

Maquilapolis. Dir. Vicki Funari and Sergio De La Torre. California Newsreel. 2006. Film.

Skylight Pictures. Granito Press Release. Press Release. 2013.

“Speakers Peter Gabriel: Musician, Activist.” Peter Gabriel. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

When the Mountain Trembles. Dir. Pamela Yates. Skylight Pictures. 1983. Film.

Williams, Linda. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary” New Challenges for the Documentary Ed: Alan Rosenthal and John Corner. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.


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