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Fifth Street

September 23, 2021

The Guatemalan government murdered her father. She remembers through art | When life gives you COVID, make a kung fu flick | Media Sommelier: The radical hope of All We Can Save

THE NEW EXHIBIT Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album is an artistic collaboration that spans decades, and crosses the threshold between life and death. Ramiro Antonio García Jimenez was a father, husband, leftist, cartoonist, and photographer. He was assassinated by a repressive Guatemalan government — funded and supported by the United States — for daring to believe a more just future was worth creating. His daughter, Elena Brokaw, still believes in that future.

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Her photographic exhibit, Human Resource Exploitation, draws its title from a CIA torture manual taught to Latin American strongmen at the School of the Americas, today renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Brokaw’s project, comprising family photos, ephemera, and other materials, is an act of personal and political remembrance in the face of institutionalized amnesia. Its power lies in communicating how history acts upon a person’s soul. Its images ask the viewer to face the very human consequences of our country’s violence, and to never again look away.

I recently spoke to Brokaw about her show, on display at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Sept. 24-Jan. 15. (Disclosure: Brokaw was my student in several classes, and I served as her thesis chair at UNLV.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you know about your father growing up?
I actually didn’t know much about my father growing up. I knew that he was killed, but I think I was about eight years old told me that he had been assassinated — that she used that word. It had always been very opaque. Oh, he was just killed in your grandmother’s store. But I was never given the reasons why. At first, I was led to believe that it was just a robbery gone bad. It wasn’t until I was older that she started piecing out a little more information about how he died, but she still couldn’t give me a lot of information about why he died.

Other things that I knew about him growing up: He was very, very tall — over six feet tall — which has been verified now that I’ve talked to more of his family, which is a little unusual for a Guatemalan man. Chapínos are normally very short, so for him to be over six feet tall is kind of this anomaly. He also had fantastically curly hair, so for that reason I’ve always loved my curly hair knowing that it came from him. And then she also told me that he was very kind — that was something that always came up.

How did that change as you took on this project?
The biggest change that happened for me was that when I was younger, I very much resented him. I saw his death as a choice he made between his country and his family because there were other members of the family who were able to leave. And I found out that he knew he was being looked for, and he chose to stay, and that has always been a really hard piece of knowledge to understand. Going into this project, I wanted to explore why anyone would have wanted to stay. When I started really working on this, I had my own son who was roughly three years old, and I could not imagine ever putting myself in a position where I had to choose between my son and something else. But I realized that for him, it wasn’t a choice between his family and his country, it was a choice to help his country for his family. He wanted a more just society for his daughters to grow into.

Another realization I had about the armed conflict — I call it that instead of “civil war” because it wasn’t a civil war, Guatemalans call it “the conflict” because they realize the international forces that were involved and what role the US really played in instigating and supporting all of the violence — but you know, I’ve spent all this time researching all these violent events, but I had this moment at the National Library: I was talking to the director, who was friends with my dad, and she and another member of the organization that he belonged to, FERG, Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario Robín García, started talking, and they were describing their youth with laughter. They were telling me these stories that were full of joy and laughter, and they exuded this pride at having been a part of this.

It was the first time I realized that joy was a part of this story, too. These were young men and women who were on the cusp of their adulthood, who were there, who had this energy and this love of life, who wanted to change something, and they had all this passion. And they were full of joy. Yes, there was a lot of death and danger, but I hadn’t realized that there was a love of life that was central to how they lived.

In many ways, this photographic project is a collaboration. Can you tell me how you came upon these photographs and how you approached working with them?
I didn’t know they existed. They were part of my mom’s mythological papeles. Papelitos guardados. My mom was finally able to go down there (Guatemala), and she was able to bring them back. They really were everything she said they were. They grew! The more I investigate them, the more they grow. Within them there were 1,076 photo negatives that were originals of my father’s work. He took them between 1977 to about 1980. Nobody had seen these. He was a photographer, so he always had a camera with him.

My mom entrusted me with them. She knew I’d wanted to start this project, so she said, These are yours, for your book. I’ve done what I want with them. She kept a couple of items that were special to her, but everything else was handed over to me. So, I spent my time in quarantine learning how to clean negatives, how to scan them, and this computer and scanner became my workstation during all the time we were socially isolated during COVID.

I was also able to work in a darkroom, through the UNLV Fine Arts Department. I was able to take a class and work in there, learn how to use the equipment, and really get a feel for what a professional photographer would do. I was able to see the process my dad would do when he would set up his own darkroom, which I did get to hear about. He would put newspapers on the windows to cover everything up to make a temporary studio. I got to learn how to think like the person who took this picture, which was my dad. It felt like a collaboration. These are his photos. The exhibit bears his name as well.

Your exhibition is called Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album. Can you tell me about the title?
The title is the title of the CIA manual that was used in the School of the Americas. The history of this manual is actually kind of interesting. It was originally developed during the Vietnam War. It was a collection of knowledge the military learned during that war on how to interrogate subversives. It evolved into this manual that was then taught to Latin American military leaders on how to quell any sort of revolution, or any sort of opposing force within their countries. Military leaders were sent there — the president of Guatemala during the time my dad was assassinated was a graduate of the School of the Americas.

In my own work, I explore many of the ways this country has immiserated Latin America. I know your work also explores these hemispheric dynamics. I often find myself wrestling with the following question: How do I reconcile living in the country that has in so many ways crushed the country where I was born? I don’t know if I’ve managed to make sense of this myself, and so I apologize for posing this question to you.
When I was a teenager, I remember asking my mom if she thought my dad would have ever wanted to live in the United States. And her immediate reply was, No, we would have never lived here if he had lived. He would never have allowed it to happen.

I don’t know that I have an answer to that question either. I cannot change what happened in the past — there’s no way that I can — but maybe we can change the cycle everything is caught in. When Kamala Harris went to Guatemala, one of her first political statements was something about needing to encourage more foreign investment in Guatemala, and I thought, She doesn’t know her history. The foreign investment has always been there, and it’s always been corrupt. She shouldn’t be encouraging outside forces to continue pillaging the country. At heart, I’m an idealist. I believe in justice and liberty, and I believe the future can be better.

Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album is on exhibit at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Sept. 24-Jan. 15, with a reception 5p Sept. 24.

José Roach Orduña is an assistant professor of English at UNLV. His first book, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement, was published in 2016 by Beacon Press.

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"YOU GOTTA figure out what you wanna do in life, or life is gonna decide for you. Pursue it one hundred percent,” Adam Kilbourn says. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, leaning back in his office chair with one ankle resting on the other thigh. He’s confident in his answer, casually satisfied with the weight of its wisdom.

Kilbourn isn’t a motivational speaker or anything like that; he just got a recent refresher on that very life lesson that now serves as a personal credo. Kilbourn is the founder of Las Vegas-based production company Black Raven Films. Years ago, after moving from Alaska to Nevada on a whim and getting his theater degree at UNLV, Kilbourn thought he was going to be an actor. That’s what he told life he wanted, and he went for it.

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By the time he was halfway through his theater degree, however, he’d heard enough horror stories about starving actors and starving artists to take out an insurance policy of sorts: an additional degree in finance. After graduating, he immediately fell into his comfort zone selling investments for Northwestern Mutual. “My thought process was, ‘Well, I'm making money at this, I'll do that acting stuff later, right?’”

Later turned out to be 2009. By then several years into his finance career, he was sitting in a professional development seminar, listening to a motivational presentation about confronting fears, when he realized he didn’t want to postpone his acting dream any longer.

Soon after, he incorporated Black Raven Films and parlayed his business connections into creative video production work.

“We did a video for a friend’s drug testing company for like 500 bucks. And the national company liked it so much that they bought it for $5,000. That’s when I realized I can make money with this,” Kilbourn says. Among other things, Black Raven Films now does production work for the Fremont Street Experience, shooting its live concerts and creating its promotional videos. And if you’ve seen a NAQVI Injury Law commercial (and chances are you have) you’ve seen Black Raven’s work.

The Black Raven studio is unassuming at first glance, but walking into the facility is like stepping into an alternate dimension. The space houses Kilbourn’s editing equipment and his wife’s podcast studio. Racks of colorful costumes fill the black hallways. At the salon next door, a friend of Kilbourn’s specializes in getting customers gussied up for headshots. The two business owners created a doorway between them so that the salon leads right into Black Raven, where the headshots are taken.

At Black Raven, a typical pre-COVID work week was packed with corporate video work. That changed when Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak shut down businesses to staunch the spread of COVID in March 2020. “We were pushing out client videos week after week,” Kilbourn says, “and within two days, every contract we had canceled.”

But after two months, he says, Black Raven caught a break. The company teamed up with Ismahawk, a local production team known for its highly polished, effects-drenched superhero video shorts, for a full-length action film, aptly called Action, Action! (At right, stunt people practice a fight sequence for the film.) Kilbourn is director. He’s certainly no stranger to the action genre; in a second creative career spanning more than a decade, he’s had a hand in numerous independent films and fan-inspired series, from heist flick Stealing Las Vegas to the superhero miniseries Nightwing.

“I don’t want to do corporate videos forever, God no!” Kilbourn says, laughing. “I wanna do some kung fu stuff and do a gun-fight and blow up a car, you know? And that’s what it’s about.” Inspired by a 2012 short film Kilbourn wrote, Action, Action! centers on Al Capone’s last painting being stolen from the Mob Museum. (Yes, Al Capone was an artist in this film’s universe.) It’s up to the protagonists to find the thief. Shot on location in Las Vegas, with a cameo from Oscar Goodman, the film boasts plenty of kung fu, explosions, and gun fights. Filming is expected to wrap up this fall, and Action, Action! should hit theaters in May 2022.

“I’m excited to be working with Kilbourn,” says Danny Shepherd, director and co-founder of Ismahawk. “Adam’s directing and acting in the movie, so when he’s not directing and he’s in front of the camera, I’m the one behind the camera. It’s a great partnership.”

With a big break possibly in his sights, Kilbourn’s advice for others rings of self-encouragement. “I meant it when I said you gotta figure it out, man,” he says. “You gotta just go for it.”

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1. AS THE REGIONAL specificities of climate change become more and more apparent, it seems Nevada faces a future of drought, heat, and wildfire. Our three horsemen of the apocalypse have captured global attention lately, due in part to the Southwest U.S.-focused section of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, recapped nicely here by the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis. The drought hit everyone’s radar —and by “everyone,” I mean news outlets from CNN and Slate, to the New York Times and Washington Post — thanks to the Bureau of Reclamation’s much-anticipated report on the Colorado River, whose meager flow projections triggered water allocation cuts in the lower-basin states that rely on the river. 

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As the rest of the world pondered that catastrophe, it caught a glimpse of our staggering heat out the corner of its eye. So much more than the basis of a tired joke about humidity, the heat, it turns out, kills more people each year than any other kind of natural disaster. That’s according to National Geographic, reporting on a recent study published in Nature Climate Change. And no one could help but notice this year’s wildfire season, which has (so far) mostly affected Northern Nevada, but was so intense that clouds of smoke blanketed cities from Las Vegas to New York. So, if you were thinking it’s bad — yeah, it’s pretty bad. But you should still read up on it (see below).

2. Before you bury your head in a stream of Tik Tok videos, know that there’s hope! And not just in the form of capturing dairy cows’ GGEs. Whereas German scientists potty training livestock reads like a Monty Python gag, the All We Can Save project, on the other hand, is unapologetically earnest. Skip the mission statement including the word “leaderful,” the illustrative Venn diagram labeled “circles” (seriously), and go straight to the collection of 60 thought-provoking pieces written by women. Ranging in form from a lyric poem to a scientific treatise on forest management, most are easy to digest in one short sitting. So, you can pick the book up and put it down on an almost prescriptive basis; no matter how much or how little you read, it’s likely to make you feel better. This is because All We Can Save sticks to its mission — a combination of radical hope and practical application — leaving readers with a sense of empowered liberation. You don’t have to save everything to make a difference, it argues; but not being able to save everything doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to save what you can … before it’s too late.

3. Speaking of responsibility, Elizabeth Holmes. Yeah. There’s a lot to be said about the infamous Theranos founder’s criminal case, which went to trial in San Jose two weeks ago. Of the myriad media that the apparent fraud has spawned, ABC’s 2019 podcast, The Dropout, remains my favorite. Generally, I prefer podcasts made by investigative reporters, and producer-host Rebecca Jarvis’ experience working on both business and medical stories gives her an edge in relating this complicated story with patience and humanity. In addition to the still-relevant original six episodes, ABC has added five new ones about the trial, along with a two-hour 20/20 documentary. So, they’ve got it pretty well covered.

That said, you can’t really know-know Elizabeth Holmes without reading John Carreyrou, the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who broke the news that something was amiss at Theranos. If you haven’t got time for his book, Bad Blood, then at the very least, revisit the 2015 Wall Street Journal article that became the beginning of the end for the blood-testing startup that promised to change the world. And for those who, like me, are wondering where their feminism fits into all this, I recommend this simple explanation from The Guardian’s Awra Mahdawi. So long, girl boss!

4. And while you’re taking a deep dive into current events, you’ll want to watch Athlete A, the 2020 Netflix documentary about the abuse of female gymnasts at the hands of sports doctor Larry Nassar/Bela and Martha Karolyi/ USA Gymnastics/the entire damn system. The case popped back up on our collective radar last week, when four gymnasts testified before Congress about the FBI’s failure to protect them, which is one of many details addressed in the film. As the world’s top-rated gymnast, Simone Biles grabbed the most headlines about the hearing, but also testifying was Maggie Nichols, whose heart-wrenching story — along with those of Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher — provide the film’s framework, a textbook study of white patriarchal authority at its absolute worst.

It’s a sweeping look at the aspects of American club gymnastics that allowed Nassar to get away with his horrific crimes for decades, told through the development of the Indianapolis Star’s, Michigan State University’s, and private attorney John Manly’s overlapping investigations. These eventually converged into the multiple cases and charges that put Nassar behind bars, the head of USA Gymnastics under arrest, and the Karolyi Ranch out of business. Still pending is the accountability for the FBI that victims now seek. Heidi Kyser

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Photos and art: Elena Brokaw portrait, Barrick exhibit by Christopher Smith; Adam Kilbourn by Christopher Smith; fight sequence photo courtesy Black Raven

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