The role of Attorney General is not an easy one anywhere. Now try taking on the post in a country still stuttering back to life after three decades of civil war and stuck in the grip of drug trafficking violence, a country where 20 people a day are killed. Burden of Peace sticks closely to Claudia Paz y Paz, the first female incumbent to hold the post in Guatemalan history, and while the film remains at a distance, it offers the occasional revealing glimpse of Paz y Paz and Guatemala’s problems.
A committed human rights lawyer who’d cut her teeth on a major, and ultimately stymied investigation into war crimes committed by the likes of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, Paz y Paz seemed an unlikely but promising choice to take on the Attorney General brief in 2010. If those selecting her hoped for a shake-up, they picked wisely. Filmmakers Joey Boink and Sander Wirken (who also provides narration), show her touring the country to personally castigate poor performing prosecutors. Back in the office, she sets ambitious timetables and fires unfit staff.
While she undoubtedly had a major impact on crime figures – her spell in post saw a massive surge in drug trafficking prosecutions and resolved murder investigations – the bulk of the film focusses on her efforts to bring human rights violators to book, including a brave battle to put Ríos Montt on trial for the genocide he perpetrated against indigenous Mayans. Boink and Wirken stick closely to the trial and its aftermath, filming in court and interviewing a faintly ludicrous critic who leads an ultimately successful campaign again her as punishment for threatening the status quo.
The one person missing from this all is Paz y Paz. Attacked from numerous sides, beloved by those she helps who lay paths of flowers for her when she finds herself in court on trumped up charges of misusing office, and feted around the world (she was in the running for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize), she remains a distant figure. Burden of Peace relegates her out of the frame, and when she is there she’s almost a background character, the action unfolding all around. There are few insights delivered from her mouth.
This leaves a number of unexplored areas. Despite mentioning the incredible improvement of the prosecutor’s office on her watch, Boink and Wirken show very little of it. Separately, the filmmakers have spoken of the improvements she made to the office – ballistics testing facilities, wiretapping capability – and changes made to the law including new prohibitions against violence in the family. This is glossed over in the film to focus on her human rights work.
There’s also very little time spent explaining how she came into the post in the first place given she’s the first woman, and the first human rights activist to accede to the role. Instead, we get stilted narration from Wirken that breaks the flow without offering value. There’s also the slightly rushed use of archive footage thrust in on occasion including a clip of a commentator referring to the brutal genocidal regime of the Civil War as akin to the Nazis.
Burden of Peace is weighed down by these missteps without diverting course. Paz y Paz remains compelling, and the story moves forward effectively, offering an impressive account of her final days in office. Here, Boink and Wirken draw candid comments from her as she’s forced into exile after losing her 24-hour protection. Throughout it all, Paz y Paz remains unbowed. The burden is heavy but it’s one she’s willing to carry.