Many in the U.S. will remember the recent controversy over the waves of child migrants fleeing violence in Central America and seeking refuge here. Director Jean-Cosme Delaloye‘s takes a personal look at the source of the crisis in his documentary feature The Pawn, which follows the stories of three female victims of that violence in Guatemala. One victim is 18-year-old Kelly Diaz, who was kidnapped from the car she was riding in with her mother and brutally raped. Her cousin Karin Gramajo was so affected by the tragedy that she began to study law in order to support other victims and their families. The second woman is one of Karin’s cases: Micaela, a young mother who was abducted with her two sons. Her children were recovered and returned to their father before they could be sold, but unfortunately not before their mother was murdered. The final victim is Astrid, who was taken when she was 13 and whose family was extorted for ransom. They went into debt to pay for her release, but even after she returned to her grandparents’ home, the perpetrators continued to call with warnings that she’d be kidnapped again, calling her “la prenda,” or the pawn. She eventually leaves Guatemala for the U.S., seeking asylum.
At first, the film grabbed me with its arresting subject matter–here, the true stories of three kidnapped women. And, in a country where such terrible events are commonplace, there must be a considerable amount of interesting material to uncover about the roots of the dilemma, its pervasiveness, and the obstacles that prevent progress. Unfortunately, The Pawn barely scratches the surface–both of the personal narratives and of the national situation. The story of Kelly Diaz aside (which Karin recounts in brutal stone-faced detail), we get somewhat garbled and bare versions of what happened with the other two victims. While understandable–the filmmaker must respect the privacy and feelings of his subjects–the heart of a documentary is in such details. Documentaries differ from news stories in that they provide that rare look behind the shades. If one dares not go there, then one best find another place to poke about.
The privacy excuse, of course, doesn’t extend to the national context. Who or what is culpable for this mess? Guatemalan politicians? Local officials? Drug traffickers? The U.S. (due to historical involvement or uninvolvement) and/or other countries? A weak and ineffectual government? Economic forces? A complicated blend of some or all of the above? The Pawn not only doesn’t explore those questions–aside from a tantalizing but unexplained remark by one subject that the culture is, and historically has been, misogynistic–it doesn’t even provide us enough legal background to understand what exactly is going on with the cases of Kelly, Micaela, and Astrid. Karin and another talking head (the one that makes the remark about misogyny) serve as our only tour guides through the legal system. The result is a one-sided and patchy view of Guatemalan justice–we get enough information to understand that criminals often operate with impunity but not enough to get a clear picture of how or why the system fails.
I left the film feeling terrible about what happened to the three young victims but only marginally more attuned to the suffering of innocent Guatemalans and not at all enlightened about the situation down there.
The Pawn screens this afternoon at the Mill Valley Film Festival. You may feel differently about this film, so don’t let my opinion stop you from going or from checking out some of the other exciting films showing today or in the remainder of the week.