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Docurama presents
When the Mountains Tremble (2004)

"I'm going to tell you my story, which is the story of all the Guatemalan people."
- Rigoberta Menchu

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 29, 2004

Stars: Rigoberta Menchu
Director: Pamela Yates, Newton Thomas Sigel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (scenes of violence)
Run Time: 01h:23m:06s
Release Date: August 24, 2004
UPC: 767685961834
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1983 filmmakers Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel released their documentary When The Mountains Tremble, a film that chronicled the brave and seemingly futile attempts of Guatemala's Indian population to rise up against not just poverty and inhuman working conditions, but a corrupt government, military brutality, and mass genocide. Told largely through the narrative of Quiche Indian Rigoberta Menchu—who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts—Yates and Sigel also found themselves in the middle of a bloody and one-sided war between a well-armed military and the proud Indian populace attempting to, as Menchu puts it, do nothing more than "fulfill their human potential" amidst a "legacy of pain and suffering".

Now released as a well-deserved 20th Anniversary Special Edition (with a wonderful new commentary track from the filmmakers, as well as a followup on Menchu), Docurama has once again brought forward a documentary that may have, in time, slipped past the purview of most people. If you're like me, your knowledge of Guatemala may be extremely limited, and the harsh brutalities brought forth through a combination of U.S funding, big business, zealous dictators and a trigger-happy military against a race of people simply trying to improve their meager existence will be a kick in the gut.

Utilizing a combination of interviews, on location footage, television clips and even a couple of re-enactments, Yates and Sigel assembled a largely narration-free doc that relies on the people themselves to tell the story of that age old adage of "man's inhumanity to man", which in this case is reinforced by remarkable scenes like the ones that find the filmmakers in the middle of a jungle firefight as Indians—labeled as "subversives" by the government—do battle with military troops. Dropped in-between these scenes of struggle we hear the first-person accounts of Rigoberta Menchu, the Quiche Indian whose plaintive descriptions of hardships and loss are nothing less than staggering in their scope.

I was left with a numbing feeling of "where the hell have I been?" while watching When The Mountains Tremble, wondering why I was so terribly unaware of the what was happening in Guatemala. I smarted at the rampant violence and images like the Guatemalan news footage of the military setting fire to an Indian-occupied Spanish Embassy, which killed 37 "rebels", including Menchu's father. It is difficult to watch, but even more difficult to grasp. To call this an Indian struggle against adversity is putting it mildly, and their willingness to fight, often unsuccessfully, against overpowering odds, is noble.

Yates and Sigel's film, and of course Menchu's story, carries a very powerful message that will probably be a rude awakening for many. It was for me.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Docurama has issued When The Mountains Tremble in its original 1.33:1 fullframe, and as it is a 20-year-old documentary, there is an understandably washed out look to some of the field footage in addition to the usual nicks and specks. The interview segments with Menchu, apparently shot in a studio at the time, retain brighter coloring and have held up substantially better, as have the clarity and sharpness of the two recreated sequences which are shown in black-and-white.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in a simple 2.0 stereo mix. Fidelity dynamics fluctuate depending on where a particular interview was recorded, and minor imperfections like mild distortion or crackle are a result of the filmmaking process rather than the transfer.

What's important is that the narration/interpreting is clear, and the message rings out loud and clear.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Lost in La Mancha, The Smashing Machine, The Weather Underground
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Pamela Yates, Newton Thomas Sigel, Peter Kinoy
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: It is fairly uncommon that a DVD commentary not just informs, but educates, which is what takes place with the track from When The Mountains Tremble filmmakers Pamela Yates, Newton Thomas Sigel and producer/editor Peter Kinoy. A cross between a history lesson and first-hand recollections, this is not so much a chat about how the film was made, but a fascinating discussion of the plight of the Guatemalan people, as well as what has transpired since the film's original release in 1983. Considering my knowledge of the region was sadly thin to none, I found the input of Yates, Sigel and Kinoy to be extremely rich and informative throughout; though their film on its own is very powerful and moving, it was their commentary that elevates this anniversary DVD release to a new level. This is easily one of the smartest and most enlightening commentaries I have ever heard.

The Epilogue Featuring Rigoberta Menchu (06m:06s) shows footage of Menchu receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, and concludes with her delivering an impassioned poem about her life and the life of her people since the film's original release. If the wind isn't already knocked out of you, this will probably do the trick—it is a poem that is both beautiful and ugly in content, and full of flowing Quiche imagery.

An Introduction by Susan Sarandon (02m:29s) features the politically-active actress explaining to viewers what they're about to see, and takes a stab at reinforcing the notion that most of just don't know all that much about Guatemala.

Also included are some filmmaker bios and a handful of Docurama trailers.

The disc is cut into 12 chapters.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

The film itself is moving, inspiring and horrifying, and the inclusion of a new commentary from filmmakers Yates, Sigel and Kinoy gives this 20th Anniversary Special Edition the added strength of enhancing the educational reach of their message.

I have had my eyes opened, and while I don't like what I have seen, I am thankful Yates and Sigel gave me the opportunity to see it.

Highly recommended.


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