Stories that Illuminate
Since 1981, we’ve been using media to advance the struggle for human rights. Our work has evolved organically along with the social movements we support and changes in technology that allow powerful stories to reach an ever-larger audience.
After making a range of long-form documentary films, we’ve learned the drawbacks of adhering to a traditional linear timeline: being less able to respond to changing realities on the ground and opportunities that arise, and to collaborate on a continuous and deeper level with social movements.
Typical Film Timeline
We seek to build on this new approach by forming deeper partnerships with movement actors and working more systematically with our partners to ensure that the content, platforms, campaigns, and media strategies we create emerge from and serve the movement. We are building an exciting new and replicable model for human rights media work.
One of our current projects is based in Guatemala, where we have been working with movements for justice, democratic participation and indigenous rights for over 30 years.
The human rights community in Guatemala is under siege.
The 2013 genocide trial of Guatemalan ex-dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt was the first time in the history of the Americas that the genocide of Indigenous peoples was put on trial. But this remarkable achievement by the Maya survivors and human rights community of prosecuting Ríos Montt for genocide has unleashed a ferocious backlash from Guatemala’s power elite. In a legal maneuver that the Maya people have called a “declaration of war”, the guilty verdict was “vacated” 10 days later by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, fully exposing the apparatus of impunity used to protect the powerful.
The power elite is dominating the “Battle for the Narrative” in Guatemala
They have swung a media wrecking ball, with a very effective nationalist narrative, right into the heart of the human rights community.
Following the Rios Montt trial, there has been a campaign by the power elite to deny that genocide ever occurred in Guatemala. The campaign asserts “No Hubo Genocidio” (There Was No Genocide) and that Guatemala is not a genocidal country.
Protesters in Guatemala have embarked on a “Si Hubo Genocidio” (Yes There Was Genocide) campaign to affirm that genocide did occur, and that the Rios Montt guilty verdict was justified. But they are up against a formidable media onslaught from the power elite.
MISREPRESENTATION OF THE INDIGENOUS MOVEMENT
POWER ELITE TACTICS
The power elite has accused indigenous leaders of being terrorists, and used physical and legal threats, intimidation, and criminalizing of peaceful resistance to portray the movement. The Foundation Against Terrorism, an extreme right-wing group at the center of the campaign, published the FACES OF INFAMY, featuring human rights defenders who contributed to the prosecution of the Rios Montt case, accusing them of being “enemies of the people”.
The indigenous movement, which resists the power elite’s control of Guatemala, is growing and calls for an inclusive and forward looking democracy in Guatemala, for all Guatemalans to protect their lands and resources and build a sustainable future. A recent protest of 50,000 people shut down 29 locations along the Pan American Highway to stop the incursion of extractive industries in the indigenous highlands.
We are seeing the economic and political elite employ tactics of repression familiar in so many other countries:
- The targeting of human rights organizations as parasites
- The criminalization and intimidation of resistance leaders
- The labeling of activists as “terrorists”
- The demonization of foreign “agents”
“The communists tried to take power through force and they couldn’t; the communists tried to take power through Congress, and they couldn’t; the communists tried to take power through the courts, and this is the consequence.”
Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, President of The Foundation Against Terrorism, about the vacating of the Rios Montt verdict
What is our role?
Our role is to work with the indigenous movement and urban youth to co-design media that counters the power elite’s narrative and builds popular solidarity and support for an inclusive Guatemala.
We work closely with movement-based organizations
We have been working very closely with the indigenous movement and urban youth, which represent the active social forces in Guatemala today in the fight for rights and social justice.
We have relationships of trust with movement activists
We were, for example, the only camera crew allowed behind the barricades in the recent massive protests in Guatemala on the Pan American Highway, with the rising young Maya leader Andrea Ixchíu.
This is just Guatemala, though, right? NO!
Guatemala’s indigenous movement is an emblematic case that has so much to show the world, as they battle for human and economic rights, social justice, sustainable non-destructive development and non-violent resistance to an increasingly aggressive backlash from the power elite.
HOW CAN WE BUILD A COUNTER NARRATIVE?
Over the coming 3 years, we seek to deepen our existing work in Guatemala, building pressure and solidarity for the Guatemalans that are continuing their quest for justice as they seek to take the Ríos Montt case to the Inter-American Court.
WE CONSTRUCT A HUMAN RIGHTS MEDIA ECOSYSTEM…
A human rights media ecosystem is a collection of dynamic and mutually reinforcing media and digital tools that work to strengthen human rights narratives.
…WHICH WE DISSEMINATE ALONG THE PRINCIPLES OF MEDIA JUSTICE
At Skylight we’ve developed a distribution model for our media and digital platforms that gives primacy to social justice and human rights over commercial goals.
Rather than handing over control of the media we produce to a distributor with only commercial goals in mind, we implement a human rights distribution model that we control. Our model still includes theatrical & television, but it allows us to make strategic advocacy decisions on innovative ways to deploy media, working with human rights organizations and grassroots constituencies as partners.
How can a media ecosystem strengthen a movement?
MEDIA SERVES AS EVIDENCE AND TESTIMONY
- Submitted our complete 1982 interview with General Ríos Montt to the prosecution in the genocide case, in which he claims command responsibility over his troops (the interview was filmed for our 1983 film “When the Mountains Tremble”). It was used as evidence in the genocide trial.
- Filmed the entire Ríos Montt trial, and while the trial was ongoing we edited and posted 23 webisodes of the trial online for a series we titled “Dictator in the Dock”, opening the doors of the courtroom to the world.
MEDIA EDUCATES AND RAISES AWARENESS
- We screen our films and hold workshops at colleges and universities around the world.
- Our 23-episode series DICTATOR IN THE DOCK was also embedded on the sites of other organizations such as Open Society Justice Initiative, Center for Justice and Accountability, International Center for Transitional Justice, Guatemala’s Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), NACLA and the online news sites plazapublica.org and Nómada.com.
MEDIA HELPS RECUPERATE LANGUAGE AND HISTORICAL MEMORY
- We worked with the NGO Cultural Survival and a network of Maya community radio stations to convert “Granito” into a 12-part radio series for broadcast on indigenous stations
- We trained 2 Maya translation teams in the Ixil and K’iche regions to produce voice-over versions of “Granito” (to be accessible to both literate and non-literate members of the community), and are now preparing to use the same teams to produce Ixil and K’iche versions of “Dictator in the Dock”, in order to bring the trial to the regions most affected by the genocide.
- The Maya translation teams are now holding public screenings of the Maya versions of our films and media in their regions, as well as ongoing workshop screenings with indigenous youth to develop a culture of rights, political education and a social base for action. We coordinated with local community radio stations to let the public know that if they bring a blank DVD to the station, they will be made a free copy of the film.
MEDIA CATALYZES DIALOGUE AND ACTION
- Guatemala’s Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) used excerpts from “Granito” to help persuade the Guatemalan Attorney General that there was sufficient evidence to bring Ríos Montt to trial.
- The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) used excerpts from “Granito” to build their case before the Spanish National Court, which also issued an indictment and arrest warrant for Ríos Montt. The case remains open.
- WOLA and Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) used “Granito” to help persuade judges and jurists from across Latin America to become observers in the Ríos Montt trial in Guatemala.
- The National Security Archive (NSA) used “Granito” as the centerpiece in their Lima, Peru conference training Latin American judges and prosecutors from a range of countries in the region, in a workshop on how to conduct war crimes trials.
- The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) screened “Granito” at a conference for indigenous leaders of the Americas to discuss transitional justice, reparations strategies, and political leadership.
PARTICIPATORY MEDIA STRENGTHENS STRUGGLES FOR JUSTICE
We developed and launched “Granito: Every Memory Matters”, an online platform designed to restore the collective memory of the Guatemalan genocide. GEMM is now being incorporated into a groundbreaking Guatemalan project called “Memorial Para La Concordia”, that seeks to find common ground amongst polarized sectors of society through a transitional justice framework.
SENTENCIA POR GENOCIDIO
On May 10th 2014, the one year anniversary of the Riós Montt guilty verdict, Guatemalans and activists around the world gathered to screen our short film “The Verdict” and read the 80-year sentence that was given. Working with indigenous youth leaders, we also helped put up a Facebook page dedicated to the commemoration of the sentence, where people are posting videos, songs, poems and photos.
A MEDIA COMMONS BUILDS A MOVEMENT’S NARRATIVE
WE SEE OUR FILMS AS PART OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS MEDIA COMMONS:
A commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Skylight films in this capacity help build historical memory for historically marginalized groups.
- We also gave masters of our films to “El Buki”, Guatemala’s biggest bootlegger of DVDs, which puts it in street markets all over the country. He added his own tagline to “Granito”: “The Greatest Story Never Told”.
- We made our films “When the Mountains Tremble,” “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” and the “Dictator in the Dock” series freely available online and as DVDs to all Guatemalan human rights NGOs and educational institutions.
COALITIONS OF INDEPENDENT MEDIA-MAKERS EXPANDS CIVIC DISCOURSE
- Our partnerships with PLAZA PUBLICA, NÓMADA, OPEN SOCIETY JUSTICE INITIATIVE and NACLA strengthen independent media, amplify alternative narratives around struggles for human rights, and expand freedom of expression.
- We mentor media-makers from across Latin America and are beginning to build a transnational network of these mediamakers in the Americas.
- We’re among the founding members of the Indie Caucus, a group of independent filmmakers that believes in the value of public media and is dedicated to strengthening underrepresented voices within the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS). We are also working with the Televisão America Latina (TAL), an expansive network of public and community television stations throughout Latin America, to broadcast our films.
Where do we want to go from here?
We want to deepen our model of collaborative media making by adding systematic media “needs assessments” and impact measuring, which will allow us to strengthen our model and increase our impact.
We want the capacity to become more systematic about how we co-design content:
- Moving forward we want to incorporate needs assessments into our process of co-designing digital media tools with movement partners as part of the human rights and social justice media ecosystem.
- Leading up to the release of our current feature length film, 500 Years, we are working closely on this initiative with Andrea Ixchíu, 26-year old Director of Communications for the CPO, a leading Maya social justice movement organization.
- With Andrea we want to conduct a “needs assessment” and “political analysis” of indigenous activists and movement leaders with whom we’re collaborating to find out….
- Who in Guatemala is (and isn’t) following the indigenous movement’s story?
- Where people who are following the story consume media and through what channels? Smart phones? Internet news sources? TV stations? Radio? Print media?
- What do the indigenous activists feel is being accurately portrayed and what is being skewed?
- What kind of media–Facebook postings, news articles, TV segments, audio clips–about their story is being created and what isn’t?
We want the capacity to measure what we’re doing:
- We want to continue to be at the forefront of performing the sorts of rigorous impact assessments that are increasingly expected from social justice media initiatives, and which we have always practiced at Skylight.
- In the case of Guatemala, we want to collect baseline data leading up to the release of 500 Years, as well as data following the release of 500 Years. This data would focus on examining key words utilized in headlines of major news outlets, as well as poll data to gauge current conceptions of the indigenous movement by the rest of society.
We want to develop a replicable model for the creation of media ecosystems that emerge from and serve social justice movements:
Together, the needs assessment, the co-designed content creation, and the impact measurement constitute a feedback loop for media making tied to a human rights struggle. We want to develop methods and tools for media making that can work in tandem with modern human rights movements.
A constant collaboration between movement actors and media makers:
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