Jose and Lucila working on their film project with Donna.

Jose and Lucila working on their film project with Donna.

The Mayan population in Guatemala has experienced centuries of oppression and violence. The Peace Accords that ended a 36 year war and genocide of the indigenous population occurred in 1996. There are ongoing efforts for restorative justice for the crimes against humanity, but racism still runs deep and it is a difficult battle to find justice. This history has impacted both the traditional culture and the psyche of the Mayan population. Many traditional practices have been lost or evolved into a blend of Mayan and Spanish tradition. The Mayan people often are made to feel inferior and as second class citizens. However, there is an effort to restore many cultural practices and to build an understanding and respect of indigenous history.

“Unlocking Silent Histories,” a project by education and technology expert Donna DeGennaro, uses film and an anthropological lens to address this issue. She works with indigenous youth to explore how they are historically portrayed in documentary films. Donna encourages the youth to question this portrayal. Through discussions, they think about how they would actually like to be portrayed and what is an accurate picture of their culture and history. She then works with the youth to create their own documentary about their cultural heritage and history. This includes developing a story line, shaping interview questions, learning film techniques, and video editing.

While she provides the tools and skills to complete the documentary, the young filmmakers independently identify the stories that are most important to them personally to tell and they come to their own conclusions in the storyline of the film. For example, one student focused on lost traditions in her community. After starting to film, she found that religion was a large part of the decline in indigenous culture and is now focusing the storyline of her film around that central thesis.

I went with Donna to San Juan, one of the communities she works in, to visit her students and see the program in action. Our first stop was Jose’s house. He had newly recorded film clips that he wanted to show Donna and upload to her computer. Jose explained the concept of his film as “the mountains.” At first I was not clear what that meant. He showed us some clips he had taken of his mother using natural dye to make the thread for her weaving work and other film clips of women weaving using the traditional back-strap method. He explained that the cotton used for the thread and the different colors of dye comes from the mountains surrounding their community. The tradition of weaving, which is the main source of work for local women and the source of production for all traditional clothing, is at risk because there is so much environmental degradation happening in the mountains. Due to lack of economic opportunities, many people cut down trees, which leads to deforestation. This has a trickle effect on all the natural resources needed to maintain the weaving tradition.

Another purpose of the visit to San Juan was to prepare for the upcoming community festival. The festival included a naming of the new “Queen of San Juan.” The current Queen hosts a party at her family’s home and invites the Queens from all surrounding communities to attend. This marks the end of her reign and the beginning of the new one. There is a traditional dance and a parade through town, as well as typical carnival rides and games like a ferris wheel and more. Several other of the young filmmakers joined us and worked out a plan for filming the weekend’s activities to include in their documentaries.

While walking around with the film group, I discovered many unique qualities of the town. It was clear that this was an artist community. There were beautiful murals on most buildings and the weavings being sold on the street carried designs and colors that were very different from what you typically see in Guatemala. It was also a very traditional town. I heard more of the local indigenous language being spoken on the street than Spanish, and I do not think I saw a single woman not in traditional clothing. I also felt a strong sense of community there. Typically, homes have large fences around them with spiky tops to protect against intruders. In San Juan, the neighborhoods were much more open. Jose explained that the community members watch out for each other and protect their neighbors against crime. It is part of their pride for their town. He said there had only been one incident in the past year and that the culprit was an outsider. This is really incredible given the high rates of crime and violence that most of Guatemala experiences.

In just the few short hours I spent with the group, I learned a lot about the history and culture of San Juan. I witnessed the pride and excitement that the young filmmakers were putting into their project. This project is a really significant opportunity for them to share with the world what it means to be indigenous in Guatemala and to share their own history and culture through their eyes. It is an empowering experience for a group so accustomed to oppression and outsiders trying to erase their history and culture. They are telling their story in their own way and reclaiming history through the modern technology of film. Quite ironic that modern technology is a means to preserve an ancient culture and tradition, no?

~Beth Davis, Manager of Educational Programs