Interview with Justice and the Generals filmmaker, Gail Pellett
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
What inspires me as a filmmaker is the human project - simply that. More precisely, I am drawn to stories of injustice and the ordinary yet extraordinary people who have confronted it and doggedly pursued truth, justice, decency and fairness. I am interested in the ideas, values, stories, fears and doubts that animate people along the way to a more just and playful society.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?
I produced this documentary for PBS national broadcast with WNET/Thirteen in New York. This story was begging to be told on television. Everybody of a certain generation remembers the images of the churchwomen's bodies being pulled from their temporary graves in El Salvador. Those were images that you never forget in your lifetime. It had been almost twenty years and now the families were taking the generals in charge of a brutal war in the early 80s into an American courtroom. That's powerful stuff. How can that happen? What had it taken to do that? Based on what laws? How come the generals were here?
What were your goals in making Justice and the Generals? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film and what would you like to see happen with the film?
My goal was to tell the story of the efforts of Bill Ford and other family members to pursue justice for two decades. That colossal task culminated in a Miami courtroom in the fall of 2000. I wanted to explain not only the complicated story of pursuing the U.S. and Salvadoran governments for evidence to take to the courtroom, but explain the legal grounds by which they could bring a civil suit. A parallel case, which I report on in the film, was brought by several Salvadoran survivors of torture against the same two generals. The idea at the heart of this film is "responsibility" or "accountability." Who will take responsibility for human rights crimes or violations that are committed by the military? The trial hinged on the question of "command responsibility."
At a time when we have our military active in a number of countries in the world, these are important questions to keep before us. And they are building blocks in the long march of upholding human rights. For that reason, I would hope that the film could be shown not only repeatedly on public television, but also at schools, churches, community centers and military training centers. It has been strongly endorsed by legal and human rights scholars.
Justice and the Generals - Bill Ford, brother of slain nun, Ita Ford, who has lead campaign to bring those responsible for his sister's death to justice. Photo: Geraldine Runio/Thirteen.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
There are common challenges for all filmmakers that have to do with funding and distribution. But every film has unique individual challenges that have to do with access to the story.
At a federal trial you cannot film in the courtroom. Laws and statutes are difficult and dry to explain. In the torture survivors trial I was prohibited from filming any working sessions with the attorneys as they strategized. The generals and their attorney would only grant one interview in an office. All of these things were profoundly challenging but in the end it is the power of one person's dogged commitment to pursue justice and the stories told by survivors of torture, which crack open our hearts and skulls.
I have now produced a number of films about extremely painful human experiences, including Facing the Truth about South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It takes a toll. I don't know if I have any particular insight into how to handle this as a filmmaker. The spirit of those I meet and tell stories about inspires me. I just keep making movies.
Justice and the Generals - Sr. Ita Ford (top left), Jean Donovan (top right), Sr. Maura Clarke (botto left) and Sr. Dorothy Kazel (bottom right).
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
I am currently making a film about 18th century slavery in North America for a four-part series that will air on PBS in the fall of 2004, Slavery and the Making of America.