Scorched Earth Unearthed: This Moviemaker Knew Nothing About the Guatemalan Genocide… Until He Made Finding Oscar

When I first met Oscar Ramírez, I knew very little about Guatemala.

I had never been to the country, nor anywhere else in Central America for that matter, and my two-years of high school Spanish were pretty much forgotten. I was unfamiliar with Guatemala’s decades-long civil conflict, as well as the genocide that took place there at the hands of the Guatemalan government. I was somewhat aware that the United States was implicated in many of the conflicts throughout the region, but I couldn’t have said exactly what the U.S. may have done directly in Guatemala. I certainly didn’t know that the C.I.A. had engineered a coup in 1954, deposing Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, President Jacobo Árbenz.

Enter Oscar Ramírez into my life in February 2014, and my ignorance for all things Guatemala was about to dramatically change. When I first met Oscar, it wasn’t lost on me that I’m a few years older than him, and that all he had experienced as a child actually happened during my lifetime. This story wasn’t from some dated history book, the way I might have previously pictured a genocide story. Making Finding Oscar was an education for me to say the least, and I’ve tried to impart some of that same learning curve in the telling of Oscar’s remarkable tale.

At the outset, we were very mindful that many North Americans would probably be just as unknowing of the context surrounding the 36-year-long civil conflict in Guatemala (which ended in 1996) that’s necessary to understand in order to fully grasp Oscar’s story. Given all of the complexities involved, the challenge, then, was to not have the film come across as just a history lesson, but to try and have the story be rooted in the present as we unravel this incredible mystery. This was especially important given the ongoing struggle that still exists today to find justice in Guatemala for the crimes of the past.

Finding Oscar director Ryan Suffern filming the Guatemalan countryside. Photograph by Scott Greathead

Exhuming History

We knew we were going to have to unpack a good amount of history in a pretty short period of time within the film, and that we’d have to mainly keep it to the broad strokes, outside of the specific details concerning the Dos Erres massacre. Rather than attempt to tell the entire story of Guatemala in an hour and a half, which would probably be impossible anyway, we chose to just tell one Guatemalan’s story—the idea being that if the audience could fully appreciate the story of this one survivor and the massacre he escaped, then inherently, the audience would understand all the more the horror of the hundreds of other massacres that took place in Guatemala, and the 200,000 that were murdered and/or disappeared by their own government.

We benefitted greatly from the documentation of many other filmmakers, activists and academics that gave us the amazing archival footage that allowed us to show, not just tell, what was happening in Guatemala in the 1980s and ’90s. But one of our greatest archival finds actually came courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA—conveniently located just 45 miles away from our offices in Santa Monica. It was at this library that we unearthed the press conference footage, photographs and contact sheets of Ronald Reagan’s meeting with Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator at the center of the scorched earth campaign that devastated so many in Guatemala. This meeting took place in Central America on December 4, 1982, just two days before the Dos Erres massacre, and it’s pretty damning to see Reagan standing side-by-side with a man who’s since been charged with genocidal crimes, pledging U.S. support while calling Ríos Montt a “defender of democracy.” Fortunately for us, and for documentarians everywhere, all of the footage and photographs obtained from the Presidential library are in the public domain.

President Reagan meets with Guatemalan President Ríos Montt on December 4, 1982. Image courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library

Micro vs. Macro Storytelling

We structured the film around the epic search for Oscar, this little boy who had survived an unthinkable massacre, and that search epitomized the larger quest for justice in Guatemala. So while we follow the specific journey of these activists, anthropologists and prosecutors on their crusade to try and find Oscar and thus the truth of what happened at Dos Erres, every so often, we chose to pull back to acknowledge what’s happening on a macro scale and how those global events impact Oscar’s story.

I’m often reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” In this case, if we could see the world through Oscar’s eyes, even just briefly, not only would we learn so much about what happened (and continues to happen) in Guatemala, but we would also have a deeper understanding of other issues at hand, like U.S. foreign policy and immigration. Oscar affords us a human face for those issues and a powerful reminder that the decisions made in Washington D.C. have the ability to impact people all over the globe. Many of those people are closer to us than we might think.

Oscar Ramírez and Ramiro Cristales with Suffern after filming in Winnipeg. Photograph by Michael Parry

In order to film with the first-hand participants involved in Oscar’s story, we went on a journey that’s taken us not only to Guatemala on several occasions, but also to Winnipeg, N.Y.C., D.C., Miami, L.A. and of course, Framingham, MA, where Oscar lives today with his family. It just goes to show that this lone massacre, which took place in the rural countryside of northern Guatemala, now has its tentacles throughout the hemisphere, with victims and perpetrators alike being scattered all over.

Wanting to try and highlight the idea that these victims and perpetrators are very much amongst us, I chose to film with them in public spaces—be it farmers’ markets, playgrounds, fast food restaurants and the like. Living in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Guatemalans of any city in the world outside of Guatemala City (roughly 750,000), I’m now all too aware of the incredible migration of Central Americans into the U.S. Oscar’s story gives us some context as to why so many of these people have sought refuge here. MM

Finding Oscar is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and Vudu July 14, 2017. Pre-order on iTunes here. Featured image photograph by Marte Myhre Tunheim. 

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