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By Anna Lothson
Three decades ago, from 1980 to '82, marked a period known today as the Rio Negro Massacre during which thousands of lives were claimed in a series of extrajudicial killings. Roughly 440 were killed in Rio Negro alone.
Thirty-one years ago, Javier Briones was born in Guatemala. Twenty-one years ago, his family immigrated to Chicago to escape the politically-oppressive government. Eighteen years passed, but the native Guatemalan who settled with his family in Oak Park in 1996, traveled back to immerse himself in a world he hadn't seen since he was 11.
The story of that violence and its effect on the residents after three decades is ready to be told through Briones' documentary, The Earth Did Not Speak, which is currently in post-production.
"A lot of people were disappearing inside and outside of the law," Briones explained about his family's decision to leave the country. "It was basically a decision to protect me and the rest of my family from the government-sponsored violence."
His family was able to escape, but the stories of so many others were different. It was those stories that Briones wanted to share with the rest of the world — an inside look at a group of people who survived, rebuilt and did so with dignity, despite extreme poverty and injustice.
"I wanted to do something along the lines that was socially conscious and would reach large numbers of people," Briones said. Documentary filmmaking seems like the perfect match.
After months of research, he lived in villages for three months while shooting, and heard firsthand from the people who wanted their stories told. Not everyone was open to speaking, but those who did, really opened up.
The experience not only gave him an inside look at a world he never really knew, it also earned him a prestigious JustFilms Documentary Award from the Princess Grace Foundation. The award will help Briones complete his thesis film for San Francisco State University, where he is currently a graduate cinema student.
The Earth Did Not Speak provides perspectives from Guatemalan villagers, young and old. Two men interviewed spoke of their family being taken away. One was 5 at the time, the other was 9. One of the men, who recalled watching his family murdered, later was taken as a prisoner, working for the man who killed his family.
One young mother at the time only survived after jumping with her son off a cliff. She miraculously fended off a military attack and they both survived the steep fall. One survivor vividly remembered the mass graves.
"I met with people who were receptive and who weren't receptive," Briones said. "In a lot of ways [some] were tired of retelling the story and not seeing anything come from it. ... Some parts were really challenging. Other people were really open."
The frustration for some villagers, Briones said, has been from seeing human rights campaigns pass through and never taking real action. Others were upset how the country and its people have been portrayed. Briones was sensitive to this and worked to make connections with leaders before approaching the people.
"I made an effort to reach out to the pillars of the community and [build] some sense of trust with them," he said. "That allowed me to meet and have access to people I might otherwise not have."
While political oppression still exists in many areas of Guatemala, it's not as rampant anymore, Briones said. Because many of those committing the offenses are aging or have died, people feel less threatened about telling their stories.
"In a sense, many people feel a sense of impunity," Briones said. "The justice system is so rigged. … But [people] are sort of beginning to overcome their trauma. … People didn't realize they had human rights. The indigenous people didn't realize there were avenues to seek justice for their communities."
Briones is proud his work can continue that dialogue. After 18 years, he felt it was time to get involved.
"The story is complicated because it's not entirely saying the government is bad," Briones said. Many of the military men were locals forced into their actions, and put into a "lose-lose situation," Briones said. He wanted his documentary to reflect this.
"The story of Rio Negro highlights atrocities of civil war and people who got caught. It shows how capitalism and government projects have its costs — in this case — more than environment. It was human lives. Every part of that is in the fold of the film. It's a unique story. There are lots of layers to this."
This particular massacre was spurred in large part after the government conducted forcible relocations of residents in dam-affected communities. When hundreds of residents refused to relocate, or tried to return, the killings began by guerilla and military leaders. The conflicting versions of how the massacres occurred also motivated Briones to explore what actually happened.
"For me as a filmmaker, the time was right for engaging in that subject. … People for many years were afraid to talk for fear of retaliation. Indigenous people are now finding a way to speak. They are no longer being silenced."
History can once again be recorded through the eyes of the people. Briones' work aims to achieve this. He wasn't sure how he'd feel or connect with the people once returning, but his visit affirmed his decision to go.
"For me it was a personal endeavor to return to a country I was born in and lived in for 11 years. … A lot of people don't feel like they can be from [both countries]," he said. "I felt I was the 1.5 generation. You can be part of a both places and feel part of it all. It was very enriching and not alienating at all."
To learn more about his film, visit www.theearthdidnotspeak.com.