________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 2 . . . . September 14, 2007


Killer’s Paradise.

Giselle Portenier (Producer & Director). Olenka Frenkiel (Writer & Reporter). Silva Basmajian (NFB Producer & Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
83 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9906 444.

Subject Headings:
Women-Crimes against-Guatemala.
Murder victims-Guatemala.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Monika Grossenbacher.

***½ /4


Six hundred and sixty-five women were killed in Guatemala last year. Not one of their murders was solved.

A 21-year-old woman is shot and killed while walking down the streets of Guatemala City with her two young children. No one, including her husband, is questioned to find out who might have killed her. Later, a 13-year-old girl is found dead in the same city. Her throat has been slit. The police keep none of her bloodstained clothing as evidence. Instead, the clothing is quickly placed in her coffin and buried forever. 

     Thus begins a gripping and emotional journey into a society where the murder of a woman is met not with outrage but with astounding indifference. There is no shortage of cases for the filmmaker. As the film’s reporter, Olenka Frenkiel explains: 62 women were killed in Guatemala during the making of the film, an average of two women a day in a country of 15 million.

     Several cases are profiled. First, Claudina, a criminal law student, is raped and killed by a single gunshot to the head. Her father presses investigators to find her killer and discovers weeks later that no one has been questioned in her death (including the boyfriend she was with the night of the murder) and that police have lost crucial evidence pertaining to her case.

     The murder of another young woman prompts her sister, Maria Elena, to find the killer. Her persistence instead puts her under police scrutiny, with accusations of jealousy and of plotting her sister's murder for money. Maria Elena does not give up. She studies Criminal Law in order to help future victims and takes her mission to keep her sister's memory alive as far as Washington, DC.

     Then there is the case of 20-year old student, Titina, grabbed and shoved into a car only metres from her home. When a neighbour alerts her father, he tries to chase down the car. Unsuccessful, he begs the police to put up roadblocks. They tell him nothing can be done within the span of 24 hours, as young women, "often run away with their boyfriends," in spite of the father's insistence that Titina was seeing no one. Titina is later found dead, after being violently raped.

     Violence against women in Guatemala is blind even to social stature, as shown by the murder of a wealthy American concert pianist, killed with a pickaxe inside her gated home. When the filmmaker asks police if they are searching for the driver of her stolen Jeep, they explain that they are looking into the pianist's past financial transactions instead, to determine whether she might have had connections to the drug trade.   

     While the Guatemalan media does cover these murders, they blame a prevalence of guns, domestic violence and drugs for the high female homicide rate. Because the women's murders are neither solved nor properly investigated, this conclusion cannot be proven.

     Guatemalan human rights activist Norma Cruz struggles through the film to continue her work. Cruz, who began her Women's Rights crusade after the rape of her daughter, attributes over three decades of civil war for some of the country's lingering violence and attitudes towards women. Over 200,000 persons "disappeared" during Guatemala's civil war, and the war criminals responsible were never brought to trial. The few who tried to name names were killed. During the war, thousands of Guatemalans were trained to kill in what was considered one of the continent's toughest armies; an army that condoned programmes of torture, where women were considered the enemy simply because they gave birth to rebel soldiers.

     When the film moves north to the county's Peten region, we see an attitude towards women that is even more entrenched in the culture of machismo. In Peten, rape is legal as long as a man marries the woman he rapes. When a 15-year old girl is raped and her family refuses permission for her to marry her assailant, he threatens to burn down their home and kill the other daughters. A handful of accused rapists, interviewed by the filmmaker in a Peten jail, insist they cannot be blamed for their actions when women dress provocatively or leave their homes alone.

     The film searches for signs of hope, including a protest march in Guatemala City, recent foreign-sponsored training for forensic investigators, and the swearing in of a new Police Chief who promises to rid the force of such evils as "corruption and homosexuality." Yet, as new cases continue to mount, there is little cause for optimism, in particular during one of the film's final cases, where a naked woman's body is found in a garbage dump. Instead of following the new crime scene standards, investigators simply see the victim's red nail polish and conclude she must have been a prostitute, her murder therefore undeserving of investigation. The woman's fingerprints are taken, an act that is not only useless, as there is still no fingerprint or DNA database in Guatemala, but the action also serves to contaminate the crime scene. Thirty-six hours later, the unidentified woman's body is buried in an unmarked grave.

     While some of the films' graphic scenes (including detailed crime scene images) may make for difficult viewing in a classroom setting, Killer's Paradise is a gritty and powerful film that deserves to be seen. It shows firsthand the horrifying results of a society where an entire gender is marginalized. That is, a frightening criminal justice system, where the victim is blamed for her crime and her perpetrator, literally, gets away with murder.

Recommended with reservations.

Monika Grossenbacher, a Language and Literature major from the University of Toronto, lives and works in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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