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Case Number 06171: Small Claims Court

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When The Mountains Tremble

Docurama // 1984 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Elizabeth Skipper (Retired) // February 11th, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Elizabeth Skipper was sick the day her Spanish class learned that Guatemala is not an avocado dip.

The Charge

The astonishing story of Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Case

…or so the DVD case would have us believe. But Menchú plays only a minor role in When the Mountains Tremble. She was instrumental in making sure this story was told, yes, but it is not her story alone. Instead, this 1984 documentary tells the story of the uprising of Guatemalan Indians and peasants against a military-run government. It tells the story of the struggles of the people labeled "communists" by Ronald Reagan and the U.S. government for upsetting the oligarchy in this banana republic that was earning American fruit companies so much money.

At least I think that's the story it means to tell. It's the story I gleaned from watching When the Mountains Tremble, but because the film has no narrator and no logical (e.g., chronological) progression, I'm still not certain I understood exactly what the filmmakers were trying to tell me. Each scene makes sense on its own, but a little help connecting the dots would have made watching this documentary a much more enjoyable and purposeful experience.

Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that I was a mere eight years old when When the Mountains Tremble was made, and therefore am utterly ignorant about the history and politics of Guatemala. I assume anyone who was more aware of world events at the time would have at least a basic understanding of what happened, which would allow this documentary to fill in the holes and correct the misconceptions. But hole-filling doesn't do much good for someone who starts out with a vacuum.

And I'm sure this lack of a big picture combined with the leapfrogging style of documenting contributes a great deal to my dissatisfaction with this film. But I think there's more. I think when it comes down to it, I just don't care. These events happened (and the original film was released) 20 years ago, and, sure, similar travesties are still happening today somewhere in the world, but that's not what I'm seeing. What do you want me to do about it two decades later? Why should I invest emotional and intellectual energy into worrying about this situation when I can't make a damn bit of difference? When the Mountains Tremble has historical significance and would make a great addition to a college history class, but as entertainment, its day has passed. Then again, I guess a short shelf-life is the price one pays for telling a timely and urgent story, and the creators should be satisfied with the knowledge that their film has stood the test of time well enough to be considered a reference material. And perhaps the fact that this story may never have been told at all were it not for the documentary should be enough to warrant it a free pass.

The most aggravating part of watching When the Mountains Tremble was not the confusion, not the frustration that I knew I was viewing it with blinders on, but the unacceptably sparse translations. I am not fluent in Spanish, not even close, but I learned enough over the years that I can get the gist of what someone's saying and I usually know what the words mean, even if I don't get the tenses right. In other words, I know just enough that I noticed how many Spanish words were being passed over in the English translations. Is it a product of the time period? Was accuracy considered not as important 20 years ago? Whatever the reason, it's hard to believe the controversial contentions of a film that won't tell you the truth about what its players are saying. The translations should have been upgraded for this 20th anniversary release.

Included on this disc are the following bonus features:
• Audio commentary with directors Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel, and producer Peter Kinoy: Their stories are enlightening and helped me understand the film a little better, though they still didn't make me care.
• Introduction by Susan Sarandon: This brief segment accompanied the documentary when it aired on public television in the '80s. It doesn't really tell you much, but hey, it's a famous person!
• Epilogue featuring Rigoberta Menchú: This epilogue was filmed after Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and accompanied a 10th anniversary release of the film. It gives an update of the political climate of Guatemala in the decade since the original.

Transfers are less than stellar, especially the full-frame video, which has nonstop specks of dirt, graininess, and shimmering. I'll cut it a little slack because, as I learned from the commentary, sections were filmed in Cuba and were x-rayed before being allowed to leave the country, causing irreparable damage to the film, and because beautiful video was never the goal of When the Mountains Tremble. It didn't need to be pretty to get its point across. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track offers a little more…just enough to be innocuous. The volume levels were fine, and the mix doesn't stand out as either good or bad.

I didn't get much out of this film, but I hesitate to recommend against it because maybe you will. Therefore, I will leave the decision up to you. If you remember the events in Guatemala in the '80s or if you fancy yourself a historian, then I've no doubt you'll find something in When the Mountains Tremble that I couldn't. But if you're in your 20s and can't even find Central America on a map, then you're probably better off leaving this one on the shelf. Or, if you insist, at least do a little research first.

The statute of limitations is up, so When the Mountains Tremble is cleared of all human-rights violation charges.

Case adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 71

Perp Profile

Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Independent
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary with Directors Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel and Producer Peter Kinoy
• Introduction by Susan Sarandon
• Epilogue Featuring Rigoberta Menchú


• IMDb

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