The week of living dangerously

Sky Callahan went to Guatemala to shoot a documentary on human-rights abuses. He didn't know he'd be a victim.

In the early-morning hours of July 8, 1995, Sky Callahan staggered through the dark and unfamiliar streets of Guatemala City, his mind and body reeling from a brutal beating.

Two men whom he believed to be government agents had kidnapped the Dallas documentary filmmaker, forced him into their car at gunpoint, then driven him around the city while subjecting him to a diatribe "about how there really are no problems in Guatemala, and the press is creating the problems," he recalls.

After an hour had passed, Callahan's abductors pulled into a remote residential district, ordered the filmmaker out of the car, and kicked him repeatedly in the shins, knees, hips, face, and groin until he finally passed out.

When Callahan came to, he had no idea where he was. He wandered through a maze of streets until he "miraculously" found his rented home, and temporary refuge.

As he lay there, seriously injured and slipping in and out of consciousness, his predicament seemed supremely ironic--in a dark, ugly way. Here he was in a foreign country, documenting ordinary Guatemalans' claims of human-rights abuses by the country's right-wing government, and he'd been savagely beaten two times within four days by agents of the very government whose alleged crimes he was investigating.

It isn't the natural chain of events to go from capturing the gaudy world of drag queens, as Sky Callahan did in one of his films, to documenting human-rights abuses in a small Central American country. But Callahan has no regrets about shifting his focus from being a humorist and animator to a sober chronicler of political turmoil.

Callahan, a 37-year-old Dallas native, is best known as a filmmaker for projects like My Adventures in the Time Spiral, an animated series, as well as Circus of the Sexes, a collection of satirical shorts about relationships. In fact, the Circus of the Sexes episodes--on which Callahan collaborated with close friend and business partner Randy Clower--won first prize for fiction in the American Film Institute competition on two occasions, in 1994 and 1995.

Today, Callahan is concentrating his energies on completing a documentary based on his extraordinary experiences in Guatemala. As a result of his journey, he now calls himself a "bitter enemy of Guatemala," and has become a direct participant in human-rights efforts there.

Callahan's interest in Latin American affairs is not new; it stems from his eight-year marriage to a Chilean nationalist who survived that country's bloody coup in 1973. After narrowly escaping execution, she emigrated to the United States, where, in Dallas, she met and fell in love with Callahan. After their marriage, the couple traveled throughout Latin America--including hot spots like Nicaragua and Chile--and although the two later divorced, Callahan's close involvement with his wife's group, the Chilean Human Rights Coalition, increased his awareness of human-rights issues in general.

A Mountain View College English professor would eventually introduce Callahan to Guatemalan affairs. They tossed around the idea of Callahan donating his services and shooting some type of documentary in Guatemala for more than a year, and finally, this past summer, Callahan began making plans to go. He coordinated his trip to arrive in Guatemala in early July when several human-rights groups were converging there in preparation for the 1995 Guatemalan presidential election.

Callahan hoped his documentary would educate Americans about the political problems and human-rights abuses in Guatemala. A Houston-based group called the Guatemala Support Network paid for his airfare and provided other assistance for his documentary with the agreement that, while Callahan would retain creative control, the Network would get free access to his footage.

Callahan departed from the United States for Guatemala on June 29, 1995, hoping to visit a beautiful country, shoot some footage for his latest documentary, and even assist in grass-roots human-rights efforts in this small, troubled nation.

The outcome of his journey, however, was far different than anything he'd expected.

Almost immediately after arriving in Guatemala City, Callahan heard about a group of peasant farmers who had been ordered off their properties by the Guatemalan government. Agents had apparently seized the farmers' hereditary lands without compensation, and had warned the peasants that if they remained there past 30 days, they would kill them.

Ernesto Mendez, a simple farmer, led the peasant group in responding to the government threat by erecting a make-shift tent city in the central park across from Guatemala's National Palace.

Callahan interviewed Mendez that next Monday--July 3. Soon afterward, however, forces of G-2, a military intelligence agency in Guatemala, began placing Callahan under 24-hour surveillance, he says. American and British expatriates who had lived in Guatemala for many years recognized some of the G-2 agents shadowing the filmmaker, and informed him that he was being tracked.

According to Callahan, G-2 is a sophisticated, covert network that acts as the right-wing Guatemalan government's enforcer, and is usually referred to simply as the "death squad." Callahan insists G-2 lived up to its reputation. Callahan says the agents' surveillance efforts were "blatantly obvious," with a small entourage of G-2 officers in plain clothes, as well as uniformed soldiers, constantly following him wherever he went.

On Tuesday, July 4, Callahan returned to the park to shoot atmospheric shots to go with Mendez's words. While he was shooting footage, three palace guards dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying Israeli Galil rifles approached Callahan and ordered him out of the park.

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