500 YEARS tells the epic story that led Guatemala to a tipping point in their history from the genocide trial of former dictator General Rios Montt to the popular movement that toppled sitting President Otto Perez Molina. Focusing on universal themes of justice, racism, power and corruption, 500 YEARS tells the story from the perspective of the majority indigenous Mayan population, and their struggles in their country’s growing fight against impunity.

This is the third chapter of the trilogy of documentaries on Guatemala, led by Pamela Yates, and follows the films When the Mountains Tremble (1983) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011). The documentary film had its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

“The template for today’s issue-oriented documentaries is to showcase a devastating and intractable problem but then suddenly, in the final moments, insist that we should be hopeful, that everything will be better if we the viewers visit the right website and chip in a couple of bucks. Yates’s films, like the world itself, have no template — they’re messy, rich with feeling, liberated from simple theatrical structures, always honest about what is possible. That one of hers ends with hope is a gift.”

The Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl
Synopsis: 

500 YEARS tells the epic story that led Guatemala to a tipping point in their history from the genocide trial of former dictator General Ríos Montt to the popular movement that toppled sitting President Otto Perez Molina. Focusing on universal themes of justice, racism, power and corruption, 500 YEARS tells the story from the perspective of the majority indigenous Mayan population, and their struggles in their country’s growing fight against impunity.

This is the third chapter of the trilogy of documentaries on Guatemala, led by Pamela Yates, and follows the films When the Mountains Tremble (1983) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011). The documentary film had its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Reviews

"Powerful '500 Years' doc concludes trilogy on Guatemalan resistance" by Michael Rechtshaffen: “500 Years” is palpably passionate...the overriding message is one that reverberates loud and clear in our own backyard: Resistance is seldom futile.” 

The L.A. Times

“A sobering cautionary tale that is very relevant to our current political situation.” “It is a masterful example of how movies can make a difference.”

Alliance of Women Film Journalists
Director's Commentary: 

500 YEARS is the third in a trilogy of feature length documentaries I’ve been creating over the past 30+ years along with Editor Peter Kinoy and Producer Paco de Onís. The two first films include When the Mountains Tremble (1983) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011). I’ve stayed committed to Guatemala, a country of beauty and pathos, of courage and fear, where a majority indigenous Mayan population has survived the Spanish conquest and resisted assimilation for 500 years. 500 YEARS continues the saga of Granito, yet tells an entirely new story, this time from a Mayan perspective.

When I learned in 2013 that the first trial for an accused perpetrator of genocide against indigenous peoples in the Americas was to be held in Guatemala and that the President from 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt, was to be held accountable, I just knew I had to film it. If Mayan survivors in this small country in Central America built a successful genocide case, it would change the course of the country and set an example far beyond. My filmed interview with Ríos Montt at the height of his power in 1982, was one of the key pieces of evidence that the Guatemalan Attorney General was going to introduce in the prosecution. When reporters approached Ríos Montt in the courtroom, they asked if he remembered me, his young nemesis interviewing him when he was President in 1982. After watching his 25-years younger-self on screen in the courtroom, incriminating himself in our interview by affirming his command responsibility, he said, “I don’t remember her, but now I’ll never forget her.”

But it wasn’t enough to tell the story of Ríos Montt’s dramatic trial and conviction. I wanted to investigate what social forces would be unleashed as a result of the trial. During the two months of in-court testimony, I met dedicated Mayan leaders, young and old, and followed them out into their world, filming with them after the trial concluded. Within two years they would contribute to forging an indigenous/non-indigenous unity in a powerful mass movement that deposed the President. The Guatemalan people wrote their own historic script, and I filmed it.

As 500 YEARS opens we see people from the past in black and white grainy footage look right at the camera, tearing down the 4th wall, as if to say, “This is film and we are conscious players in it.” This style echoes Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, where the act of making a documentary film and the reasons for it were not only acknowledged, but celebrated.

There are other echoes from When the Mountains Tremble and Granito in 500 YEARS. Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Laureate, is the lead protagonist in When the Mountains Tremble, as well as a thread weaving together all three films, appearing in each throughout her lifetime. The year 1982 is a touchstone in all three films, the year of the height of the genocide. In 500 YEARS, we come back to my filmed material from that year over and over to understand the players in the present, and how Mayans are rebuilding historical memory, because their history was suppressed. People were silenced.

After four years of filming and editing, the way into this story became clear to me. The lead protagonist who carries the story would be Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a Mayan PhD, who is an active social anthropologist, author and influential newspaper columnist. She’s a public intellectual whose ideas became key to the building of a national non-violent movement that sought to unify the divided indigenous and non-indigenous people of Guatemala, and expose systemic corruption of the political and business elite.

She is joined by Andrea Ixchíu, an environmental law student and elected tribal leader who has one foot planted in the Mayan world and one in the whirlwind of social media. Andrea is acting on what was reaffirmed in the genocide trial — that after the killings, the Army stole vast tracts of land and erased 626 indigenous communities from the face of the earth. Today, extractive industry mega-projects are being carried out on this very land. I wanted to include Andrea in 500 YEARS because she is of the next generation and has taken a leading role in discovering and exposing the results of Guatemala’s hidden genocide.

500 YEARS builds to a climax when the citizen uprising against government corruption burst forth and people poured into the streets all over the country. They formed the largest mass demonstrations in the country’s history, toppling the sitting President, as well as the Vice-President and members of his Cabinet. It became possible to imagine a new Guatemala.

The closing scene says it all. As young Mayan women work to lift aloft a colorful, giant, hand-made kite, Irma Alicia’s and my thoughts converge. We hear her say, “Our children are showing us that it is possible to build a new country, with new ideas. Those of us who grew up actively resisting during the war, when we die, we can die in peace. Because we saw something we thought we would never see in our lifetimes. That is, a completely different Guatemala than the one we grew up in.”