Pamela Yates has been chronicling the plight of the Maya people in Guatemala for over 30 years now. In 1983 she released When the Mountains Tremble, which included Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu’s firsthand account of the war between the Central American country’s military and the Maya population. She followed that pivotal documentary with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator in 2011, which traced how her own 1983 doc had become an instrumental piece of evidence in the mounting case against General Efraín Ríos Montt, former Guatemalan military dictator, for his role in the genocide of the Maya people. Granito further showed the resilience of a community besieged in their own country. Now, with 500 Years, Yates is capping off her Guatemalan Trilogy with a powerful indictment of the impunity that still riddles the country following the much publicized trial of Ríos Montt.

As its title suggests, though, the documentary is helpful history on more than 500 years of discriminatory practices that pushed the Maya people of Guatemala to their near-breaking point. A celebration of resistance in the face of injustice, 500 Years intricately weaves an engrossing history lesson with a template for to how to successfully protest and demand change within a system designed to silence you.

500 Years weaves an engrossing history lesson with a template for to how to change a system designed to silence you.

The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where both of Yates’ previous films had also debuted. Remezcla Film Editor, Vanessa Erazo, got a chance to sit down with Yates, her editor Peter Kinoy, and several of the Maya women who are featured in 500 Years: Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, Matilde Terraza Gallego, Andrea Ixchíu Hernández and Maria Aguilar Velasquez. Given the project’s timely subject matter whose message extends far beyond Guatemala’s borders despite telling such a homegrown story, their conversation tackled everything from fighting alternative facts to waging a successful government resistance movement. Check out highlights from their chat below.

500 Years plays at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 9-18, 2017) as part of The Resistance Saga which will screen all three of Yates’ films on Sunday June 11 beginning at 1:30pm and be followed by discussion after the third film, followed by a reception and concert for ticketholders.


On Finding Inspiration In the Guatemalan Maya People

Pamela: 500 Years is a story of resistance, with all of its successes and all of its setbacks. The Maya of Guatemala had been world leaders in the defense of Indigenous rights and the defense of all human rights. We have learned so much from the women that you see in the film. Not just because they appear in the film, but really, because their ideas guided us as we were making it. In the United States now we talk a lot about this concept of “resistance.” What does it mean? Let’s let the Maya and the wisdom of the Maya of Guatemala guide us.

On How Resistance Takes Work

Matilde: I think the challenge is that the population has to organize, because there are a lot of actors and different organizations. But I think what we saw in the movie is just the beginning of an empowered citizenship. We need to join more, to have the strength to join [against] the injustice that we have in Guatemala. This is a longterm work that we have already started. It’s necessary to educate people about how human rights are linked to democracy, which has been very violated in Guatemala. We need more support from international organizations to fight corruption, to fight violence against women, to fight violence against human rights. We’re still standing here and we’re still working.

‘500 Years’ Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival Photo credit: Saul Martinez

On What Americans Can Learn From ‘500 Years’

Pamela: Well, Otto Pérez Molina is still in a jail awaiting trial. The trial hasn’t started yet and it will probably take a while before it’s started. He was forced to resign and then put in jail awaiting trial right before the presidential elections. A power vacuum was created into which stepped a candidate who was elected that was backed by military veterans. So when I talk about how the Maya have shown us all the successes and setbacks that come with a lifetime full of resistance? That’s what I refer to. On the other hand, there have been some incredible justice initiatives. Just in January of last year, 16 high-level military officers were arrested and these initiatives have gone on and on. There was also a trial for two men, one military officer, one a commissioning military officer, for sexual violence against women in a military base from 1982. There are these two currents running simultaneously. There’s the citizen uprising and incredible gains—Guatemala is the first country ever to try a perpetrator against indigenous people—but there are, as in our country, there’s still so much to do still. But I think things are moving forward.

On How Films Can Have An Impact On The Real World

“We feel that the struggle that we’re showing in the film has very global implications. It has implications for people who are just learning what resistance is going to mean.”

Peter: It’s a long story, we’ll make it very short: the material from the film that we made in 1982 ended up in an earlier attempt to bring Efraín Ríos Montt to trial in Spain. And then as you saw, the material from When the Mountains Tremble was the video material where Ríos Montt says “If I’m not in charge of the army, what am I doing here?” But we’ve consistently tried to bring these films out in the world and the reason that lawyers for the indigenous genocide trial ever thought to look at our materials was that I had taken that material to an international film school in Cuba and had shown When the Mountains Tremble when I was teaching editing in Cuba, and some young Guatemalan filmmakers who were learning filmmaking in Cuba said, “Oh my god! We never knew about this film! This is incredible! We have to show it in Guatemala!” It had been banned by the military governments in Guatemala. But then we took it in 2002 and showed it in Guatemala and a lawyer said, “Do you have any more material of Ríos Montt?” and that was the genesis. We feel that the struggle that we’re showing in the film has very global implications. It has implications for people who are just learning what resistance is going to mean. And it has implications for other struggles around the world that have to become united. We think about these things as we’re putting the films together. We’re hoping that we can communicate what’s universal in their struggle to audiences.

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj in ‘500 Years’ Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

On The Politics Of Erasure

Irma Alicia: I think the country has had a long history of a politics of erasure of memory. And that’s from the time when Guatemala was established as a republic, back in 1821, but more specifically in 1823 when we formalized our independence. But those politics have been reproduced over and over again. Indigenous people, for example, have had access to just the very basic education, very insufficient. And apolitical, really. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to be contained and controlled. There’s an entire shadow political system that’s conceived of and created these communities as bodies of labor, but ones with no minds. During our colonial history, for over three centuries, one thing that was key was the use of alcohol as a way to mollify them. In farmhouses, indigenous communities were paid in liquor, encouraging alcoholism in the community. So they would lose their own sense of self, their sense of family. Even after the colonial period ends, alcohol continues to serve the same purpose. Alongside, of course, that poor education from before, which kept many people in the dark about their own country. It’s only until the 20th century when we begin to see a certain segment of young people, most of them elites who are schooled abroad, who see how indigenous people are treated elsewhere, where they are valued. They are the ones who come back as an intellectual elite. One of them is, of course, Miguel Angel Asturias, who’d later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. They come back with a social conscience with regards to the indigenous population. But the revolution that resulted from their awareness—the changes they were championing back in 1944, only lasted ten years. And since then up until now, this country’s history has been swept aside for political gain.

On The Importance Of Keeping This History Alive

María: There have been two reports on what happened in this country. The first was handled by the Catholic Church, the second one by the United Nations. And the U.N. one was the first one that makes it official, that puts it on record, that this had, in fact, been a genocide. I don’t know how long the Church was given but the U.N. was given just one year to investigate. That’s not enough time to dig into a 36-year long history, especially since the war was in response to systemic problems in the country. A year really wasn’t going to be enough time to cover everything, and that’s been clear now that we’ve seen all these other cases that have come to light and that have gone to trial. We’re learning things that didn’t make it into these reports. But I do also think that while these documents certify the history we’re all talking about, they haven’t been disseminated in a way that would better serve this country. Why aren’t they being taught in schools? So while they’re there, if these reports aren’t being made publicly available, and if they’re not being read widely, they won’t make much of a difference.

“History, for me, has always felt very immediate, like an open wound.”

Irma Alicia: In my case, I lived next door to Guardia de Hacienda, which was one of the most feared police forces of the time, one of the more repressive arms of the government. We were neighbors. So I grew up hearing the sounds of torture, saw how they’d take families and put them there. We saw firsthand how people were disappeared. During the war, our community was cut off—we’d get home at 6pm and couldn’t leave until 6am. If we needed to do anything after dark we had to ask permission. That type of oppression was something I witnessed firsthand. And then, a family member was part of the guerrilla movement, so we’d get word of what had really happened. So history, for me, has always felt very immediate, like an open wound. Because I lived through it. There was no way of looking away from what was really going on. And I think the Ríos Montt trial was helpful because it really opened the eyes of many in urban areas who didn’t want to believe that this had been happening. But hearing testimonies, seeing these women, these people—seeing their struggle, it showed that there was this other Guatemala. That’s what’s motivating everyone right now.

On How History Becomes A Tool Of The Oppressor

María: Something that really struck me, that really made me want to delve deeper into my country’s history was the peace agreement signing. I was nine years old when it was signed in 1996. I had an uncle who was part of the guerrilla in Guatemala. The day they signed the agreement, I remember it vividly, my grandma and my uncle went to the plaza—the one you see in the film—because that’s where everyone was gathering, seeing not only the peace being signed but also waiting for their family members. The thinking was that people would be coming in from the mountains and they’d find their way to that public square, which would serve as a meeting spot. So my grandmother and my uncle went, hoping that my other uncle would come back. But he never showed up. When they got back home, to our town, that’s when the search party began, to see what had happened. Part of that process was going to the library to go check the newspaper records. Eventually they met with a commander who’d been in the same front as my uncle, and my mom, who was a journalist, was visiting campsites, and that’s how we found out he’d died. We even found out the date he’d died. I was there alongside my dad during this whole process, poring over these documents, and found the note which contained the name of the cemetery where he’d been taken. We went there and checked the books there—people were buried and identified merely as “XX.” We double-checked that with our own records and found his grave, but also got to talk to people who’d known him and been with him, we found photos of him so that my grandma and the family had some record of him. That was when I was 10, taking part in what was basically a history-driven homework assignment.

It truly, above all else, it was a war against memory. And that’s something we’re in the process of addressing.

Back then, I was still living in Guatemala, and there was no history class in school. We had Social Studies where you didn’t really talk about history at all. But then I moved to the US when I was 11. I got to live in a pretty liberal-leaning city which had Latin American studies as a high school course. That’s where I was learning more about my country’s history than what I had learned at home. I’d never have learned many of the things I learned there. If I’d stayed in Guatemala—and I’m a historian now—I’d never have decided to study History. I was set on studying Medicine. But those classes, which complemented what I had seen at home, really pushed me to follow this as a career. I think the war really destroyed a lot of families, a lot of people. But it truly, above all else, it was a war against memory. And that’s something we’re in the process of addressing.

On Politician Zury Ríos And Fighting ‘Alternative Facts’

“They really have mastered the art of simplifying political messaging.”

Andrea: First of all, listening to Zury Ríos, and hearing her be so honest about the way she sees what happened, angers me. And it embarrasses me. She’s someone who harbors a lot of hate. Even just the way she addresses people. She shows herself to be hurt, very angry. And I’m sure it can’t be easy to be the daughter of a military officer, let alone that of Ríos Montt. So, of course she’s built her political career around this, being a sort of mediating force between the elites and the military. She’s basically presenting herself as a politician who’ll keep the status quo, knowing that the military officers are mere weapons that serve the country’s elite. They had to create this parallel structure that ran counter to the interests of the criollos just to make themselves rich, forming their own social class. It really does make you think a lot seeing how she expresses herself and the things she said. Even her decision to run. It says a lot.

But it just pushes you to examine her words and her delivery. They really have mastered the art of simplifying political messaging. That ability to send those messages out into the mainstream and through the media is something that really fascinates me. There’s that moment when she basically states that these former guerrilleros are basically coming here and making up witness accounts—the conviction with which she says that. The swiftness and the simplicity of that messaging: that’s what a lot of people took for granted and believed throughout the trial. If you were to ask random people on the street about their opinion on the genocide trial, they’d merely parrot here. “There was no genocide here! People are making it up! They’re being paid off to say those things!” And that very effective message of “Guatemala is not a genocidal country,” that was so effective. Because it attributed this concrete crime this man was accused of to the entire nation. It generated a lot of empathy across the country for people who didn’t know the history and who didn’t want to own up to it for fear of bearing that responsibility.

Ríos Montt and Attorneys in ‘500 Years’ Photo credit: Daniel Hernández Salazar

On The Need To Check One’s Privilege

“If white people here in the United States don’t make a point to be conscious of other populations, it’s going to be very difficult to create the sort of unity you need to effect change.”

María: What’s really necessary is to be quite aware of one’s privilege. As you see in the documentary, change only happens when there’s a united front. To get to that protest, to that national strike that brought down the president, we needed to work together, as a unit. To get those in the countryside and those in the city together. But that in itself wasn’t an easy feat. Much of it had to do with the racism we’ve been discussing. That was what made the marches and protests so successful: it came down to the strength of the indigenous communities. And what brought people together, in the end, was the corruption. It wasn’t our issues. The genocide trial didn’t bring the country together. There wasn’t a sense of collective or national indignation during that trial, even though we’re the majority here. Our deaths didn’t move them. Ultimately, it was the money. So if we are to move forward and tackle the systemic problems facing this country, what we’ll need is for the Latino side of the country to be cognizant of its own privilege. In terms of class, in terms of race. And they have to understand the structural changes that are needed need to benefit the majority of the country’s population, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

At its core it’s a racial problem, just like here. We may all talk about post-racial America here, but that’s obviously a lie. What we see in Guatemala we see here too. Just look at how violently the police treats black communities—and that didn’t much rally people together in the United States. People actually see the Black Lives Matter movement as a sort of divisive force, like they’re some sort of radicals. And if white people here in the United States don’t make a point to be conscious of other populations, it’s going to be very difficult to create the sort of unity you need to effect change. Because those divisions and that privilege are what gave Trump the presidency. He insulted as many groups as he could, but white people across the board didn’t much care what he said about Mexicans, or about immigrants, about Latinos, about African-Americans, about women. These bubbles we live in, that’s what we need to work against. We need to worry not just about what happens to us but also what happens to our neighbors in other communities. And people need to understand that you can and should fight other people’s fights, to fight for the rights of indigenous people, to fight for the rights of African-Americans. To move away from living in our own little bubbles.

Some portions of this interview were conducted in Spanish and were translated by Manuel Betancourt for Remezcla.