“Alma is part of our lives
and we are part of hers.”
Returning from the hellish violence of Guatemala City, Isabelle Fougère and Miquel Dewever-Plana analyze their encounter with Alma, the ex-marera now confined to a wheelchair for defying her gang. Their unique human adventure, mingling emotion and denunciation, friendship and investigation, solidarity and detachment, took a toll on them as observers, they say.
Catherine Lalanne : Why did you choose to report on Guatemala’s extreme violence by focusing on Alma, an ex-marera?
Miquel Devewer-Plana : I did not choose Alma; her fate transfixed my lens. I had already been researching the problems of gang violence in Guatemala City for four years when I decided to focus on her career. I’d met her briefly in 2008, at the start of my investigation. I’d found her engaging, and we’d stayed in touch. In this dark underworld, her beauty was a shining light. Alma is a curious mixture of fragility and strength, of candor and cruelty, of finesse and rigidity. As we got to know each other better, I became convinced that her intelligence and forceful nature made her the icon I was looking for, to embody a generation that has been sacrificed.
Isabelle Fougère : In 2010, when we were working together on a report, Miquel introduced Alma to me. It was immediately clear to me that her individual journey had universal appeal. The lessons she had learned were an eloquent testimonial. She was an excellent spokeswoman against gang violence.
Catherine : How can the adventures of one teenage girl be emblematic of the lives of youths in the city’s slums?
Miquel : The further I got in my work, the more I realized it was significant to give a voice to a woman in an extremely macho society. To make her mark in these surroundings, a woman is forced to use her masculine side. With uncommon determination, Alma became a player in a man’s world, the only world that counts here. Her ability to prevail in a men’s gang, combined with her decision to quit gang life, convinced me that she was the key to understanding the most secretive twists and turns of the gang phenomenon. Alma symbolizes a whole range of things: her country, her macho culture, youth sacrificed by a corrupt society, and the fascination of violence in all its complexity. She represents the innocence of evil.
Isabelle : To me, Alma’s extremely violent story seemed emblematic of the desperation of youths from the shantytowns, totally abandoned by a society rife with corruption and impunity. Cut down in her prime, she symbolizes the dilemma of her country, which is among the most violent in the world. Her experiences can be summed up by a single question: how do you survive in a world of exclusion, a world in total breakdown? Do you yield to the violence that has surrounded you since infancy, or do you struggle to join the strong? Do you reproduce your mother’s life as a battered woman, or do you inflict the beatings yourself? Alma chose her path, and paid dearly for it. Both victim and perpetrator of this endemic violence, she holds up a mirror to each of us, challenging us: What would you have done, in my place? That’s another reason we chose her. For her ability to engage us all.
Catherine : There are two sides to Alma: she is a criminal who killed others and acted as an accomplice to rape and extortion. Yet she is also a 26-year-old victim, a paraplegic in a wheelchair. How did you deal with these two facets of her character? Did you have to deny your feelings of both censure and pity for her?
Miquel : I see Alma as a friend, but I never forget what she did, and it is impossible for me to justify her deeds. I was able to carry out this project with her because I had already completed an extensive study of the origins of her country’s violence for my photo-stories. That knowledge was an essential prerequisite.
Before meeting Alma, I spent months talking to mareros in prison, day in and day out, to understand their psychology. Sometimes I saw them burst into tears like children, telling me their personal stories. Like Isabelle, I wondered: what would have become of me, if I had been born into a family like theirs, with no hope of an education? What if I’d grown up in a slum with an alcoholic father beating my mother? What if my sole role model had been the leader of the gang on the corner?
Alone at the jail, in the midst of 180 youths covered with gang tattoos, I knew I was in danger. Journalists must always be vigilant, even though we’re always tormented by the temptation to cross the barrier of caution, to get the exceptional photograph or testimony.
The experience I acquired at the prison is what enabled me to maintain a balance with Alma: to empathize generously while remaining at the proper distance. It was hard, because we were swayed by the power of her confession.
Isabelle : Alma is a human being, with her paradoxes and her dark side. But deep inside, she is driven by a desire for a better life, her desire to improve. I think it’s a mistake to deny our impulse to judge her or to pity her, to take one side or the other. We’re actually vacillating continually, and this experience of ambivalence is what makes her words a gift to each of us. She causes the barriers to move; she pushes us. Her story is not invented. It is real life, with all of life’s sometimes unbearable complexities. Yes, she is a murderer, who committed barbaric crimes in cold blood. And yes, she is also the victim of a system, of historical injustice. From the 15th-century Spanish colonization until the civil war of the 1980s, Alma’s people have been subjected to domination, exclusion, and massacres. Basically, Alma is the monstrous product of a ruthless world. She is fully aware of that today, and this lucidity is what saves her. Despite the burden of her guilt, she is trying to make a new life for herself. Being willing to confide, facing the camera, is part of this process. Nevertheless, in doing so, she is taking a huge risk. I applaud her courage, although I still hold her accountable for her past.
Catherine : Isabelle, as a woman and mother, you must have been torn apart by Alma’s disastrous experience of womanhood. And because she is a paraplegic, you assisted her in the various acts of daily life while the confession was being filmed. Is it possible to maintain the proper journalistic detachment with a subject who is so dependent?
Isabelle : “The proper journalistic detachment” is a term we study in school, and that’s all very well. But field work teaches us something else. By exploring the limits, we become more aware of our own boundaries. And this is the detachment we offer to our audience. There is nothing scientific about it; it is simply human. To understand Alma, to forge the bonds and trust necessary, and to share her story, because we believe it is valuable, Miquel and I went through many different changes. As a woman, I empathize with Alma’s distress. She wants to be free in an extremely macho society: women are not only objects, they are prey. As a mother, I can imagine how bad it feels to be unable to support your daughter while she gets an education, or to allow her to witness the ugly facts about her father’s violence. As a citizen, I am chilled by the fear that Alma-the-killer uses to intimidate her neighborhood. It is an unbearable terror, on which a generalized hatred feeds. And I see Alma fighting to get out of this. I experienced her physical dependence when I helped her wash and dress. Perhaps, fundamentally, true detachment is sparing yourself nothing, while doing the reporter’s job: tell every facet of the story, so others can make use of it. Perhaps our job is to make this suffering instructive. This experience was harrowing, but it also enriched my life.
Catherine : Miquel, what effect did this long encounter have on your thinking?
Miquel : Like Isabelle, I was shaken by this experience. Alma’s handicap, closely shadowed by Isabelle, put me in touch with the lifelong dependency it will entail. My work as a photojournalist is meaningful only insofar as I establish a personal relationship with my subject. Without that, there’s no story to tell. That’s why I take so much time with my work, exposing myself to risk to shoot a report. I make an effort to remove the blinders of ethnocentrism to engage in a dialogue, to build trust. It’s no accident if I chose Latin America to carry out this in-depth work. I speak Spanish, and I can communicate. My goal is deep understanding of people’s realities.
More tangibly, Alma put me in touch with the search for meaning of a person deprived of roots. Alma is an uprooted Amerindian. Her Maya parents migrated from their homeland, but she knows almost nothing of their exile, of her background. Filming her, I was thinking of the thousands of young French people whose parents were immigrants. They, too, have trouble finding a place in society. To me, Alma’s confession reflects their confusion. They, too, have been sacrificed; they, too, are in crisis. Our low-income housing projects are also a ticking bomb.
Catherine : In your opinion, why did Alma risk provoking the vengeance of her clique by talking to you?
Miquel : When I suggested to Alma that we make this film, she thought about it for a year and a half. Together, we considered the pros and cons, asking Alma’s family and boyfriend for advice. Ultimately, she made the decision alone, but fully aware of the consequences. Although it was true that her clique had already tried to silence her, Alma’s need to speak out was stronger than her fear. Confined to her wheelchair, she no longer has anything to lose. Her crimes burden her. She seeks relief from her guilt, and she hopes her story will save other young people from making bad decisions.
Isabelle : Also, Alma wants to shine, to stand out from the rest. She had to give up school even though she was a good student. She was deprived of fulfilling her potential. To her, this film is a way of gaining recognition. When we skype, sometimes she asks me, “Do you think this will make me famous?” She is a combination of great lucidity and compelling childlike wonder.
Catherine : Now that she has confessed to you, do you feel obligated to protect her? Will you stay in touch?
Isabelle : We can’t imagine cutting ourselves off from her. We have become a part of each others’ lives. Undeniably, the fact that we conversed with her and listened to her without judging her forged a strong bond between us. It’s a little cumbersome sometimes, but we won’t back out. She was already in danger. Her confession increased the danger. Since the project began, we have been thinking about ways to offer her appropriate protection, and the less we say about that, the better. We won’t abandon her, even though we know that at any time, her past may catch up with her. It’s impossible to quit a gang: as long as living gang members remain, she will be in danger. Not to mention the families of the people she harmed.
Miquel : We promised to support her, and we will keep our word. We did everything to limit the risk while we were shooting the web-documentary. We rented a house outside the city to protect her. We were also able to provide her with a comprehensive medical examination: we learned that she still has a bullet lodged near her heart, and that her paralysis is irreversible. She has just earned her high-school diploma, and she dreams of being admitted to college. She wants to become a psychologist, so that her experience will help other young people avoid making the same mistakes.
Catherine : What was shooting the web-documentary like for Alma? Was it an ordeal, or a form of relief, a step towards redemption?
Miquel : Alma broke down several times, when we led her to the most private motives for her criminal deeds, to her painful memories of childhood. But she always found the words to say the unsayable. Talking is therapeutic for her. She is quite aware of that, and eager to engage.
Isabelle : It was very painful for Alma to talk without feeling judged, to empty her haunted conscience of all these gruesome memories and guilt. She responded to us with remarkable equanimity and honesty. It isn’t easy to face a camera and report your crimes. Nor is it simple to reopen the Pandora’s box of a devastating childhood. Alma was motivated to bear witness for all deprived kids, to tell them that she was wrong when she believed a gang might give her a family and love. All that anyone can expect from gang life is blood, pain, betrayal, and death. This web-documentary is her path of redemption.
Catherine : How did Alma experience the return to her daily life, after her days as a “heroine” in the spotlight of your camera?
Miquel : It took Alma several weeks to realize what had happened to her. She was subject to a sort of postpartum depression, and didn’t know what to do with herself. Isabelle and I surrounded her with friendship, listening to her, reassuring her. Alma returned to her difficult job, wrapping gifts in a shopping center, but she is impatient to see the result of the film.
Catherine : In what way does the web-documentary add to your report on Alma? Why choose this medium, rather than a book, a photo story, or a documentary?
Isabelle : Alma’s story is emblematic, but it raises many questions. What is the source of all this violence? What makes children from poor neighborhoods in Guatemala turn to total violence, whereas children from similar backgrounds in other countries do not? What is it about this society – its history, its power structures – that creates such monsters? To answer these questions, we had Miquel’s five years of photographic work, on the phenomena of violence in Guatemala. In addition, we could draw on images of Maya culture, the majority ethnic group in Guatemala, and of the genocide perpetrated by the army during the civil war. All of this frames Alma’s story, providing context.
The film enabled us to show the roots of the evil and its manifestations. We could show who benefits from the crime. Images, texts, graphics, and sound combine to produce a more all-encompassing experience, leaving space for the unspeakable: it is felt, and learned. Because the web is interactive, viewers can absorb the story freely, at their own pace.
Our work with the whole team of interactive media professionals at Upian enabled us to custom-tailor the structure of the story for web navigation, a medium that offers a sensitive and innovative approach to a narrative. We are also grateful to Arte, for their unfailing trust and support throughout this ambitious endeavor. And, because we’re crazy, we’re also publishing two books about Alma’s story. Print gives us an opportunity to present the story in a different form, adding even further meaning to our research. The first book will be a collection of Miquel’s photographs covering the phenomena of Guatemalan violence, with captions that help tell the story. The second is a fictionalized version of Alma’s life in which my text will dialogue with Miquel’s pictures. (More on the books here)
Miquel : There are three parts to our composition: first, the camera on Alma telling her story, and secondly, stills of her neighborhood and its gangs, visible on the screen throughout her confession. They come from my long-term work in Guatemala. The third element is the drawings by Hugues Micol, illustrating unbearable scenes from Alma’s life. This combination of media communicates Alma’s reality in the most effective way. The web documentary was designed to inform young people about the dangers of gang life. That was my ultimate goal, and one I shared with the agency Vu when they introduced us to the team at Upian.
Catherine : This web-documentary really is a valuable source of objective, well-documented, and instructive facts about urban violence, delinquency, the drug trade, and the corruption plaguing Guatemalan society on every level. Do you plan to show it in junior and senior high school students in Guatemala and in France?
Miquel : I committed to this study of violence in the hope that it would serve as a learning resource for young people. A web-documentary is ideal, because it is interactive and fun to navigate for teenagers. It’s an ideal way to reach out to a French kid from the projects, a way to touch him without stigmatizing him. Guatemala is at once so far away, and yet so near. We have designed teaching resources, including questionnaires young French viewers can fill out without giving up their anonymity. With their teachers and social workers, they can elaborate tools to identify violence and limit the damage it does.
Isabelle : That is the primary idea of this project: for people to appropriate it as a vehicle for discussion and change. It will be shown in Guatemalan schools, to reach young people who are at risk. But it can be instructive beyond that country’s borders. Violence is a phenomenon affecting us all. It feeds on crises. We have planned to have hosts accompany discussions of the film, so that young people can speak out in forums. We have contacted partners ready to become involved in prevention programs.
Catherine : So would your final word be hope?
Isabelle : Alma is the product of a situation that was neglected. Let’s stay alert.
Miquel : I hope this film will enable some kids to choose a fate better than dying at the age of 20.
Copyright 2012 Catherine Lalanne
* Editor-in-chief, Le Pèlerin weekly