2004 has been the year of the documentary. Whether it is Morgan Spurlock's hilarious Super Size Me, the tidal wave of anti-Bush pics started by Fahrenheit 9/11 or the responses to said anti-Bush pics such as Fahrenhype 9/11, the documentary has made a move out of the curriculum of the bored and unimaginative high school civics teacher and into the suburban multiplex.
But just like some would argue that today's newspapers and television news give you less information than their counterparts of 20 years ago, so too have documentaries strayed toward the edge of "infotainment." Putting aside the filmmaking ability of Spurlock, Michael Moore and others, their films are video op/ed pieces, meant to inflame and persuade.
When the Mountains Tremble, celebrating its 20th anniversary with this DVD release, doesn't need ironic juxtaposition of happy music with war scenes to make its point. No self-promotional grandstanding is necessary here. What filmmakers Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel did is get out of the way and let the story, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala rising up against brutal military dictators, tell itself.
Starting with "dramatic reenactments" showing how the United States supported a military dictatorship in the country in order to stop the spread of communism, When the Mountains Tremble takes us through the mountains and fields of Guatemala and shows us the oppression of the poor by the ruling class. It tells of rape, pillage and murder, using powerful footage that Yates and Sigel collected by sneaking into the country.
The footage is tied together by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu, who is known throughout the world for her work on behalf of her own people (she is of Quiche Indian descent) in Guatemala and other similarly oppressed minorities.
Make no mistake, this is not documentary as we have become accustomed to the art form. There are no attempts made to demonize the opposing side more than what is done through action. There's no MTV-style editing, no celebrities-with-a-cause (save an intro in the special features section by everyone's favorite actor-vist, Susan Sarandon) and no slick presentation. The source print doesn't even look like it has been cleaned. And yet, When the Mountains Tremble is interesting for those interested in Central America politics.
When the Mountains Tremble has not aged well; the source print looks dirty, no attempt seems to have been made to clean up scratches on the film and the colors are fading fast (a shame considering the sparkling beauty of some of the native Guatemalan dress). It is presented in full-frame.
The stereo audio track does its job in an efficient, if unspectacular, fashion. The dialogue is easy to make out (or understand, if you speak Spanish – there is very little voiceover and Menchu speaks exclusively in her native tongue). There is little to no difference between the two speakers, though, as if the stereo mix is really a rehashing of an old mono track.
The commentary track with Yates, Sigel and Peter Kinoy is more interesting than the feature, if documentary filmmaking is more interesting to you than third world struggles. The fact that 17 journalists had been killed in Guatemala in the two years before the filming of When the Mountains Tremble says everything that needs to be said about the bravery of Yates and Sigel; this is not a place where the free press is embraced. The trio have lots of interesting stories to share, along with some reflections on the political situation there and how it has changed today.
There is an introduction and an epilogue provided. The former features a very, very young Sarandon, giving the Cliff's Notes version of the story, but the latter is actually interesting. Menchu sits down after winning the Nobel Peace prize and describes what that award means to her and her fight.
Filmmaker biographies and trailers round out the package.
While the replay value on such a disc seems like nil (it's like popping in tapes of old newscasts), When the Mountains Tremble still gets a wholehearted recommendation, if for no other reason than as a reminder of how simple great documentary filmmaking can be.