When you start working on a documentary film, you have to be ready for a marathon during which you will have to deal with highs, lows, intense emotions, rejections, frustrations, anguish, excitement. You will have to hustle, convince, think, imagine, find solutions and take risks.
I started working on LA PRENDA - THE PAWN six years ago. At the time, I had just finished BY MY SIDE, a film I produced myself. I was screening it at the Icaro Festival in Guatemala in November 2011 when I decided to do a follow up on an audio documentary on kidnappings in Guatremala I had done for Swiss Public Radio. I met Rodolfo Diaz, a lawyer of the Sobrevivientes Foundation. He was representing the family of Kelly Diaz, a teenager who had been kidnapped for a ransom and ultimately been killed.
When I heard about the brutality of that case, I thought that it would have made headlines around the world if it had happened in the US or in Europe. Before she was killed, Kelly had been tortured and raped. Her pelvis had been fractured. Her body was found days later in the woods.
I decided to start doing a film on Kelly's story, without thinking twice about it. The next morning, I hired a cameraman and we drove 4 hours through Guatemala to Quetzaltenango, where I met with Karin Gramajo. Karin is Kelly's cousin and she has been fighting for justice for Kelly for the past 7 years despite the threats she has had to deal with. Karin should have been a lawyer but could not afford to finish her studies. So she helps people with their legal fights against the widespread impunity in Guatemala. If Karin hadn't agreed to be in La Prenda, there would have been no film. But she did agree and we embarked on an incredible journey together.
We were soon joined by Astrid Elias, a courageous young woman living in Los Angeles, who had been kidnapped and raped as a child in Guatemala. I remember the call I received one day from Azalea Vazquez, a witness in Astrid's political asylum case in Los Angeles. Azalea had heard I was looking for another case of kidnapping for my film and she decided to reach out to me. In a documentary film, there are moments like that. You feel you are stuck because the story is so sensitive that people can't share it. And suddenly a door opens. Thanks to Azalea, I was able to speak with Andrea Garcia, Astrid's lawyer, and with Astrid herself. Astrid is a shy young woman, who had been kidnapped and raped in Quetzaltenango when she was 14 years old. After a ransom was paid by her family, she was released and stayed at her grandparents' home without leaving. Once she started going out again a year later, she was threatened again. So her parents who lived in Los Angeles, decided to make her come to the United States with her younger sister. But Astrid was caught by the border patrol while she was trying to cross into the United States and she was facing deportation when I first met her. While fighting for her life, she decided to let me document her ordeal.
In a world where journalists are under constant attack and ignorantly labeled as fake news by some people, Astrid gave me the opportunity to go to the bottom of her story over the next 2 years. When she was facing deportation, we were there. When she was praying for a reprieve, we were there. When she went to her final court hearing, we were there. Her family embraced us. They showed us a courage I have seldom been exposed to. They trusted with a story, their story.
A film is a team. And thanks to all the people who decided to work on it, produce it, support it and finance it, we were able to get it done in 2 years. The response has been incredible. It premiered in 2015 at Hot Docs and at the prestigious Guadalajara Film festival. It screened in some of the best festivals in the world such as Thessaloniki, Mill Valley, Havana, FIFDH, San Sebastian. It screened at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, at Lincoln Center in New York as part of the Women in the World Summit. Astrid got to share the stage with Meryl Streep, America Ferrara, Microsoft exec Brad Smith and many others. The film won several awards and it is still going around the world as part of the FIFDH on tour. Last month, it screened in Guatemala and sparked a debate on human rights and justice with a Guatemalan Supreme Court judge.
Despite its big success in festivals, it took time for La Prenda - The Pawn to be broadcast on TV. That changed on May 14, 2018, as the film screened on Swiss Public Television RTS in Switzerland. As a filmmaker, I feel I finally reached the end of the marathon of La Prenda. I can let this film go even if Kelly, Astrid, Micaela and their families will always remain in my heart.
As a documentary filmmaker, you never stop running. But you will always cross paths with people that inspire you and push you forward. My next goal is to finish my new film's marathon. I am getting close to it as we will announce a major US release for Stray Bullet in the next few weeks.
You make documentary films for nights like these. On April 19 2018, LA PRENDA screened in the magnificent auditorium of the Mexican embassy in Guatemala City. This special screening took place in the context of the FIFDH Human Rights Festival on Tour to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After an incredible festival run that started in 2015 at Hot Docs and at the Guadalajara Film Festival, LA PRENDA came home. We missed Astrid, one of the protagonists who lives in Los Angeles, Kelly's family and Micaela's family. But Karin and Rodolfo, 2 of the main protagonists of the film, spoke for them.
They shared the stage with Supreme Court judge Maria Eugenia Morales Aceña during one of the best Q&A the film ever had. LA PRENDA sparked discussions at the highest level of Guatemalan justice system. The protagonists' quest for justice impressed Justice Morales Aceña. "The film teaches me about the life of the children is a "prenda" (a jewel)", she said after watching LA PRENDA. "It is so precious that we have to defend it. The most important thing is to try to prevent these cases".
In Kelly Diaz Reyes' case, justice hasn't been achieved yet. The teenager was kidnapped and killed 7 years ago but her family is still fighting with the lawyer Rodolfo Diaz and the Sobrevivientes Foundation to make sure the convicted murderers are not released prematurely. A visit to the "Casa de la Memoria" (House of remembrance) in Guatemala City is a powerful reminder that these cases keep happening and that people keep disappearing.
Nights like these inspire you to keep going and to keep hustling to make films that matter. Because ultimately, you get to meet courageous people like Karin, Astrid, Rodolfo, Norma Cruz, Fernando Carac Saquic, Hortensia Reyes, Don Chepe, who trust you with their story. LA PRENDA was our attempt to make it shine and to make sure it is not lost on anybody who watches the film. That is why it was such an honor to receive last night the Icaro best documentary award the film had won in 2015 when it first screened in Guatemala. It is hard to measure the real impact of a film but this award means that the voices of Karin, Astrid, Kelly, Fernando and all the other protagonists of LA PRENDA have been heard in their own country.
My film LA PRENDA (THE PAWN) about the kidnapping and rape of young women in Guatemala is screening today at the Tolerance Film Festival in Slovenia almost 3 years after its World Premiere at Hot Docs. The next screening is scheduled on April 12 at the Swiss embassy in Guatemala City in the context of the FIFDH human rights festival world tour.