'500 Years': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
Resonates more emotionally than intellectually.

This film completes documentary director Pamela Yates's Guatemalan trilogy, after 'When the Mountains Tremble' (1983) and 'Granito: How to Nail a Dictator' (2011), both Sundance premieres as well.

It might have taken director Pamela Yates 34 years to complete the Guatemalan trilogy she started in 1983 with When the Mountains Tremble, which premiered at a then still very young Sundance Film Festival, which had just relocated to Park City. But the story she chronicles in the series’ closing part — after Mountains and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, from 2011 — is a struggle that stretches back decades and, to an extent, even centuries, as the title 500 Years suggests. Yates is a political filmmaker, and the fate of the small state of Guatemala (slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, where Yates was born), and more specifically its indigenous Maya peoples, has been a recurring feature in her work, with some of the footage she shot for Mountains even used in a genocide trial against general and former president Rios Montt.

500 Years chronicles Montt’s most recent trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemala itself (an earlier court case occurred in Spain) and combines it with the subsequent citizen uprising that toppled then-sitting president Otto Perez Molina. These proceedings didn’t last centuries, of course, but Yates tries to place these recent victories in the context of the Mayans’ unending struggle against the ruling classes that have, at best, overpowered them but in many instances literally slaughtered them since the “discovery” of the Americas some 500 years ago. Finally more convincing in its outrage and inspiring in its show of what the people’s will can do as long as the masses protest and demand to be heard, than as a rigorous historical analysis, this Sundance documentary title will nonetheless appeal to other festivals and to VOD outlets.

The handsome-looking film, mostly shot at eye-level, is divided into several parts with each centering on a different theme. Part one looks at the Montt trial from 2013, which examined the general’s responsibility for the killings of entire Maya villages in the early 1980s (a 1982 coup d’etat had brought him to power during the Guatemalan Civil War, which stretched from the 1960s through 1996). Montt and his army, backed by the Reagan administration, laid waste to many Ixil Maya villages that had been branded “red.” The indigenous witnesses, many of them suspect of a justice system that has never favored the Mayans, find it hard to confess what happened to them in the courtroom, even anonymously. Montt, who kept mum for most of the trial, mostly looks on, stone-faced, from the sidelines. Interviewees in this section include Zury Rios, Montt’s daughter, who is also a politician and who is a passionate defender of her father. Some anonymous vox pop, simply shot against a photographic backdrop in a busy street, further suggest that many citizens, too, don’t believe a genocide ever occurred in their country.

Part two is the most jumbled part, trying to suggest something about how the aftermath of the trial galvanized many Maya leaders (especially women) while also offering some history, from the 1954 coup through decades of military rule and the undoing of pro-Maya land reforms (they were first chased from the fertile areas into the jungle but are now being expropriated from there because companies want to mine for minerals or construct gigantic infrastructure projects such as dams). This recent history in turn is tied to the centuries-long maltreatment of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Yates struggles somewhat to tie the three elements together properly, and there’s a sense the trial material from the first chapter might have been better served by placing at least some of these history-lesson elements up front.

By far the most fascinating part is the third segment, “Uprising,” which looks at the massive protests that erupted in the wake of Montt’s sentencing and the specter of corruption that sprung up around the government of then-president Otto Perez Molina (the film doesn’t even mention the La Linea case that would finally bring Molina down). This section lacks the specifics that would make clear to what extent the protests and strikes had an influence on Molina’s decision to finally resign — the fact Congress removed Molina’s immunity the day before his resignation might have had something to do with it... — but in this age of stateside airport protests and women’s marches, the footage of thousands in the streets of Guatemala City, demanding to be heard, is inspiring. Many of the interviewees from parts one and two are present during the protest as well, making the event feel like a very organic extension of what preceded it.

After nearly 500 years of struggling against European oppression, it is great to see that the indigenous populations of Guatemala finally had their voices heard. But though it’s briefly mentioned in passing, Yates could have placed greater emphasis on the bitter irony of that only happening when disgruntled city dwellers, many of them of European extraction, started filling the streets and squares too to protest the country’s corrupt leadership. In the end, the frustration, anger and, in the casa of the Mayans, centuries-long maltreatment and resentment that lead to the protests and, finally, to a regime change, are easier to understand on an emotional level than as a carefully analyzed part of recent history, though the latter might have been a near-impossible task in a film under two hours in length.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roger C. Miller’s score is mournful for the most part, lending the documentary added gravitas. Graphics help explain some of the history and also underline the importance of the press and social media in the Mayans' struggle.

Production company: Skylight
Director: Pamela Yates
Producer: Paco de Onis
Directors of photography: Melle van Essen, Rene Soza
Editor: Peter Kinoy
Music: Roger C. Miller

No rating, 106 minutes

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