Image by La Prenda

Refusing to be a Pawn: A Review of La Prenda

Find the full lineup for the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival here.

Showtime of La Prenda:
4:45pm, Sunday September 13
The Cinematheque

This review contains discussions of rape, kidnapping, murder, and genocide

“There is too much violence against women in Guatemala,” Astrid Elías Macario tells us from Los Angeles. “Many of these women stay quiet out of fear that they’ll be attacked again.”

Astrid survived a kidnapping and sexual assault at the age of fourteen in Quetzaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Fearing for her safety, she crossed the border into the United States and joined thousands of other racialized survivors who face deportation. Unlike so many (largely children) Guatemalans seeking refuge from violence in the United States, Astrid was finally granted asylum after having to fight a long legal battle. She is one of the women whose story is told in Jean-Cosme Delaloye’s La Prenda (The Pawn), a documentary showing this Sunday, September 13th at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival.

Astrid’s story is not unique. Guatemala is one of the most violent countries on Earth, where violence against women is rampant: according to the United Nations, two women are killed in Guatemala every day, and with almost complete impunity. In 2011, only 12% of murders of women were brought to trial, and many fewer resulted in a sentence.

Astrid refuses to stay silent about what happened to her. Indeed, much of La Prenda is testimony for the violence against women in Guatemala, where testifying in the courts offers little justice to the deceased, the survivors, and each of their families.

The film follows the court cases of Astrid and of Francisco Saquic, who is seeking justice for the kidnapping and murder of his wife Micaela by gang members. Karin Gramajo, part of the organization Sobrevivientes (Survivors), helps Francisco through the proceedings. Propelled into this work after the murder of her cousin Kelly Díaz, Karin remains in Guatemala today, fighting in the courts despite facing threats to her safety. In the first few minutes of the film, Karin solemnly reveals her reason for staying: “Just as there is divine justice, there is justice on earth. And that is what we are pursuing, justice for what they did to Kelly.”

La Prenda is a product of the media landscape in Guatemala where, upon discovering a corpse,  police call journalists to report on the death the next day. The press, director Delaloye tells us, has the same access to the bodies as police, as though capturing images of the dead for television and newspapers can bring justice.

It cannot. Motivated by making coverage of violence in Central America more visible in Western media, especially in Europe, Delaloye – a reporter by trade for daily newspapers and public radio stations in Switzerland – admits that media production plays a limited role in holding perpetrators accountable. He tells us, “We came, shot, and left, but they’re doing this [fighting] every day.” Nonetheless, he hopes that the film will help with Kelly’s case, which has been in legal limbo for years.

Astrid hopes that it will encourage other survivors to speak.

Few Canadian and U.S. cases on violence against women are filmed. But Delaloye’s camera follows survivors and families into the courtroom and uncovers unsettling, gruesome pictures taken by journalists of the murder, as well as shots of investigators examining evidence from the crime scene. To survivors and family members in the film, describing the brutality of the murders is a crucial part of their testimony. La Prenda withholds almost none of the essential horror.

Looming in the background of the experiences shown in the film are the legacies of the Guatemalan Civil War, in which US-funded death squads committed genocide against the Indigenous Mayan population through rape, massacres, and destruction of villages. During the war, violence against women was used as a weapon of terror. As Astrid tells us, “Aggression has become a mode of being.”

“It has to do with the history of Guatemala,” says Norma Cruz, founder of Sobrevivientes, in La Prenda. “[Violence against women] was accepted and planned during the Civil War that lasted 36 years. And we have had a patriarchal society for more than 500 years. We’re making the first steps to try to overcome this heritage.”

Indeed, changes are happening which provide hope for the future. Although many of those who committed atrocities during the war are still in power, Ríos Montt, who oversaw the genocide campaign, was charged with crimes against humanity (the charges were later thrown out on a technicality); and just a few days ago, Otto Pérez Molina, a military officer under Montt, resigned as President of Guatemala and was subsequently arrested for corruption owing to immense popular pressure. Over the past few years special courts have been instituted in Guatemala for trying cases of femicide and other forms of violence against women, with significantly higher conviction rates.

While not explored in the film, salient connections can be made to Canadian settler-colonialism and imperialism. Between 1980 and 2012, over 1,100 Indigenous women were murdered or missing in Canada (being RCMP estimates, the number is likely much higher). And a 2012 fact-finding mission led by the Nobel Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú, a human rights activist for the Indigenous people of Guatemala, concluded that the Canadian government bears responsibility for violence against women in Guatemala through the lack of accountability for Canadian mining companies. Canadian resource extraction, both at home and abroad, follows familiar patterns of displacement and violence against Indigenous women.

La Prenda is brutal to watch, but also fiercely resistant to despair. Some of its most powerful and enlivening scenes depict Astrid and her family making food, eating, and praying together. Moreover, the film’s capturing of natural landscape also reveals Guatemalan life as more than systematic violence. Francisco’s home rests within lush tropical forest; scenes of him and his two children, both safe and playing in the stream, offer momentary relief from the harsh world beyond. In grieving the woman – mother, wife, human being – who was abruptly taken from them, they have the land on which their home humbly rests. They have each other.

Thank you to Astrid Macario and Jean-Cosme Delaloye for the interviews, and to Sonia Medel.