Film Review - The Man We Called Juan Carlos, directed by Heather Mac Andrew and David Springfield


Directed by Heather MacAndrew and David Springfield

Asterisk Productions, 2001, 52 minutes


Those of us who consider ourselves socially aware and choose to work in developing countries often confront questions about our roles. We wonder about the effect we, and the organizations we represent, will have on the individuals with whom we have contact.

We attempt to follow the “do no harm” credo, but often it is impossible to know for sure the ramifications of our work. On the surface, it appears that building a school can be seen only as an act of kindness, that listening to a community elder tell his life story is no more than a respectful learning experience. However, as outsiders, we must recognize that we cannot know the subtleties of a small community’s dynamics nor how the residents themselves see the larger forces at play in their country.
In her prizewinning film, The Man We Called Juan Carlos, Heather MacAndrew and her team document the life of a Maya Kaqchikel man from rural Guatemala, and how his interaction with a US-based nongovernmental organization changed his community and his life. Woven into this story are MacAndrew’s own thoughts on her life and how she has been profoundly affected by this man and his story.

The film is firmly placed in the historical context of Guatemala. MacAndrew provides enough background to give a newcomer to Latin American history an understanding of 20th-century Guatemala, without an overpowering amount of detail. For those with knowledge of Central America, there is nothing particularly revelatory. Unjust land distribution, foreign corporate interests, US political and military intervention under the guise of halting communism.

Into this context steps World Neighbors, a Christian development organization. It begins working in the rural village of San Martin, Guatemala, in the 1960s to teach better agricultural techniques for land-poor subsistence farmers. Mac- Andrew describes the organization as participatory, encouraging bottom-up leadership, and promoting an each-one-teach-one philosophy. Eventually this becomes the model the entire community adopts for its successful self-organization. However, in the early 1980s, this internal community strength, along with a large land purchase by World Neighbors, draws the attention of the Guatemalan government—with devastating consequences.

The principal character in The Man We Called Juan Carlosis Wenceslao Armira, whom Mac-Andrew follows from his younger days as an agricultural educator with World Neighbors, to his middle years as a guerrilla fighter, and then, after the 1996 signing of the peace accords, as a Mayan rights activist. An intelligent, dedicated, and personable man, MacAndrew draws much inspiration from him. His life pushes her to question and examine her own, along with her role in his.

Perhaps for her Western audience, this is where the film will resonate the most—and serve its greatest purpose. As MacAndrew questions her own privilege, she asks the viewer to do the same. Where were you when the army entered San Martin? Why are your children still alive while two of Armira’s were abducted and killed by a military who noticed him largely because of do-gooder northerners?

They are wrenching questions, difficult to face, but if one does face them, perhaps it will lead to a desire to challenge the imbalance of power that has created such a wide gulf of privilege. Both World Neighbors’ and MacAndrew’s interaction with Wenceslao Armira and the entire community of San Martin are examples that demand that we address how to be responsibly involved in changing the balance of power.

Watching the film in late December 2002, with its grainy images of US armed carriers speeding around the mountain roads of 1980s Guatemala, there is no way to avoid drawing parallels between the US intervention in Central America 20 years ago, and the apparent intention of the US leadership to go to war with Iraq. While the justification for war has changed from anti-Communism to anti-terrorism, the underlying desire for economic gain and control has not. As Wenceslao Armira teaches us, let us not sit complacently by.

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