“There is not a single indigenous family that doesn’t carry memories of the atrocities they have suffered in their lives.” This is how 500 Years sets out to retell the traumatic story of the Mayan people througout the centuries. This fascinating and moving documentary exposes the genocide of the Mayans that took place in 1982, while revealing the tremendous resistance of the indigenous people. It is directed by Pamela Yates and made by Skylight, a filmmaking collective dedicated to producing films that raise awareness of human rights.
Divided into three parts, The Trial, Defending the Land and The Uprising, 500 Years takes us on a journey throughout the recent history of Guatemala. Starting from the trial of the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013, responsible for the Mayan genocide, the narrative takes us back to the dark days of the 1980s, when around 200,000 indigenous were massacred and 45,000 artists, students and activists went missing.
Since then, thousands of Mayans have lost their land, which has made room for very large construction projects, such as hydroelectric dams and open pit mining. The leader of Guatemala’s largest indigenous peasant movement Daniel Pascual comments: “The genocide takes many forms. It is a spiritual genocide, a genocide of historical memory, a cultural genocide. This is a slow genocide”.
The documentary reflects the troubled history of Guatemala – a country that has suffered from a long period of civil war, US imperialism, massacres, injustice and impunity. The democratic government of Jacobo Árbenz, who favoured the indigenous populations with his agrarian reform, was overthrown by a CIA coup in 1954, leading to decades of military rule.
The documentary gives us an insight of the Mayan culture, portraying the dignity, purity and kindness of the people. Yates captures the dynamism and the psychological strength of this ancient people, who manage to unite, raise their voices and fight for justice against all odds. Two years after the trial of Ríos Montt, in the spring of 2015, the Mayan populations have become a major force in the protests against the corrupt government of the President Otto Pérez Molina. The Citizen Uprising, formed by thousands of Guatemalans, asks for complete transformation of the political system.
The camera captures the beautiful nature and the magnificent and wild landscapes of the country, which haven’t yet been exploited and damaged. The Mayan resistance for justice and protection of their lands and homes evokes admiration and respect. As the journalist and anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj comments: “This is the struggle for memory, a struggle to rewrite our long history.” Without a doubt, the Mayan struggle in one of the most inspiring and respectful resistance for justice and equality, and brilliantly captured in 500 Years.
500 Years is showing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which runs across various London cinemas for 12 days from March 6th – click here for more information about the event.
Plus, watch the filmmaker Pamela Yates talk about her film here: