Chronicling the Resistance in Guatemala: An Interview with Pamela Yates (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West and Joan M. West
Pamela Yates has now completed her latest feature documentary, 500 Years, thereby concluding her Guatemalan trilogy—a magnum opus tracing many of the principal sociopolitical events unfolding in that wartorn country from the mid-1950s almost to the present. On the commentary track of the DVD edition of the first film in the trilogy, When the Mountains Tremble (1983), Yates mentions that when making that documentary her team had found almost no stock footage depicting the turbulent and violent history of modern Guatemala—an indigenous-majority Central American nation long regarded by U.S. policy makers as a “banana republic.” With the completion of her trilogy, she herself now offers up for the historical record a vast audiovisual chronicle on an almost unprecedented scale. The history of world cinema offers few instances of such far-reaching and all encompassing projects tracing major historical developments in given countries in the Global South. Yates alone directed the last two films in the trilogy; she and Thomas Sigel co-directed When the Mountains Tremble.
They begin their documentary by setting the historical stage. Newsreel footage from the mid-1950s and dramatized historical re-creations illustrate the outsized economic and political power of Guatemala’s largest landowner and employer at the time, the United Fruit Company, an American corporation. During the Eisenhower Administration, this corporate colossus defined and steered U.S. policy regarding Guatemala. In the prevailing Cold War fervor, the company had convinced Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, that Guatemala’s democratically elected reformist president, Jacobo Arbenz, was indeed a cryptocommunist. The Dulles Brothers—both had close ties to United Fruit—then convinced President Eisenhower, and in 1954 a CIA-orchestrated military coup d’état successfully overthrew Arbenz.
Succeeding right-wing, authoritarian military regimes rolled back Arbenz’s agrarian and other social reforms and instituted brutally repressive measures against the citizenry. Almost four decades of guerrilla warfare ensued as different left-wing insurgencies sought to oust the military, which was maintained in power by anticommunist U.S. administrations that—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—provided helicopter gunships, military trucks and jeeps, arms and ammunition, and officer training. The genocidal Guatemalan Civil War finally ended with the signing of peace accords in 1996. According to the findings of a UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, ninety-three percent of the atrocities committed during the civil war were attributable to the savage counterinsurgency strategies unleashed by the U.S- backed military and their paramilitary allies. Many hundreds of indigenous communities had been wiped from the map; over 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly civilians and indigenous, had been killed or forcibly “disappeared.”
By 1979 and the early 1980s, the Sandinista Revolution had triumphed in Nicaragua, and the winds of revolution were sweeping across El Salvador. In the United States, America’s aggressively imperialist, anticommunist policies towards Central America were being increasingly challenged by burgeoning solidarity movements working in support of revolutionary or progressive social change in the region. At this time, many documentaries examining the sociopolitical situations of the Central American countries were produced, and they were screened widely by solidarity and other groups. The most politically ambitious of all these films, and the most successful in terms of reaching American audiences, was When the Mountains Tremble.
The film’s success derived in particular from two factors. First is the filmmakers’ greatest coup: an on-camera narrator who is a disarmingly plumpish, baby-faced, dignified, articulate, cool and collected, twenty-two-year-old indigenous woman dressed in colorful traditional garb—Rigoberta Menchú, years before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. In frequent appearances, she fearlessly faces the camera to elaborate matter of factly on her background as a peasant, a Maya K’iche’, a Christian, and one of the last of her family. Menchú explains how members of her family were killed on the order of big landowners and the military, and why armed revolt is the only avenue open to Guatemalan peasants. Her poignant first-person account effectively personalizes and humanizes the Guatemalan tragedy.
The success of When the Mountains Tremble is also a result of the extraordinary access the filmmakers wangled across Guatemala’s sociopolitical spectrum. In interviews, a modestly dressed priest explicates the power of liberation theology for the Guatemalan poor, while an elderly, magnificently robed, hard-line Catholic archbishop clarifies that the Church will treat its flock well if they just refrain from getting uppity. In scene after scene, in helicopters or jeeps, the filmmakers accompany the military on patrol, the camera frequently positioned behind rifle or machinegun barrels pointing at the civilian population. And the military themselves routinely detail the mechanics of repression, as when the officer in charge at a rural checkpoint spells out—a twisted grin on his face—that if you are a peasant appearing before him without the proper paperwork, and your name happens to figure on such-and-such a list, well, then, you simply die—i.e., extrajudicial execution.
In black-and-white footage, paramilitary allies of the military are filmed in action in a harrowing sequence depicting the violent abduction by masked men of a young man on a busy city street. Considerable attention is devoted to the guerrillas, who, for reasons of security, are filmed in remote rural locations, including a forest where there is less chance of detection by military personnel patrolling above in helicopters. In one moving scene, a young guerrilla leader explains his movement’s objectives to a group of internally displaced persons, peasants forced out of their rural communities. Particular attention is paid to young women fighters and the appealing horizons they envision for themselves in a new society.
In voice-over narration in the next film in the trilogy, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011), Yates stresses the moral and social responsibility incumbent in her work and informs viewers that, “Witnessing is the essence of being a documentary filmmaker.” Indeed, witnessing represented the greatest strength of When the Mountains Tremble, especially (as we wrote in our review of Granito in Cineaste, Winter 2011), in “the exposing of the day-to-day workings of a military machine savagely dedicated to ‘eliminating’ communists and their presumed sympathizers, and the documenting in the field of the military and sociopolitical activities of an outgunned, undersupported, and ideologically naive Guerrilla Army of the Poor.” Yates’s witnessing in When the Mountains Tremble was conducted from a politically committed viewpoint; her nom de guerre had been Ana María. That proguerrilla commitment has melted away in Granito, and she explains in voice-over her intention to follow selected figures on the contemporary Guatemalan and international scene working to create a more inclusive and democratic society during the transition to democracy after the signing of the 1996 peace accords. Those accords had signaled the demise of the armed left in Guatemala.
Rigoberta Menchú herself—now older and more stately—appears in the film to explain Granito’s title: a popular expression used by the people to refer to the importance of the individual efforts of the many to collectively transform a society. Such committed individuals are called “granitos de arena,” little grains of sand, and they serve as the film’s emotional-psychological center of gravity. There is Menchú herself, a distinguished Nobel Prize winner now appearing on international political stages—still wearing a colorful huipil and as dignified as ever—as a Maya activist leader no longer burdened with the outmoded rhetoric of armed revolution. There is the Guatemalan-American Fredy Peccerelli, a brave forensic anthropologist glimpsed rappelling down into an eighty-foot-deep pit in La Verbena Cemetery in Guatemala City in order to retrieve the remains of victims of extrajudicial execution. Their bodies had been clandestinely cast down there in the 1980s. There is the tall, white Gustavo Meoño, who, as a young man in the 1960s, was an idealistic Christian who eventually decided that joining the guerrilla movement was his only hope to change society. Having survived the war, he is depicted in Granito spearheading efforts to catalogue the literally millions of documents discovered by chance in 2005 in the abandoned archives of Guatemala’s National Police, the central branch of the nation’s security forces and an infamous institution inextricably linked to the state-led repression, terror, and atrocities committed during the civil war.
Granito also involves a fascinating search. Yates spends considerable time poring over her extensive outtake material from When the Mountains Tremble in order to respond to Spain’s National Court. That tribunal, invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction in genocide cases, had requested access to any footage Yates might have shot depicting General Efraín Ríos Montt. This officer, after being installed in a military coup, had served concomitantly as President of the Republic of Guatemala and Commander-in-Chief of the Army for approximately seventeen months in 1982–83. During this period, he also functioned as the éminence grise behind the most bloodthirsty counterinsurgency campaigns in the modern history of Latin America. His operational documents specifically targeted the Mayan population as an “internal enemy” that should be annihilated.
The Spanish court had noted that little audiovisual material exists from the general’s time in office, so perhaps Yates could help. The filmmaker’s dramatic search finally yields up the pièce de résistance: in an intense interview, the bug-eyed, bristly mustachioed, camouflage-clad, and beyond loquacious general practically admits that given his high positions he must ipso facto have known of the atrocities being carried out by the military he commanded. He is never extradited to Spain to stand trial for genocide. That trial happens, sensationally, in Guatemala in 2013; it represents the first instance in modern history that a head of state is tried for acts of genocide in her or his own country.
In 500 Years, Yates chronicles the seismic events that shook Guatemalan society from 2013, the time of Ríos Montt’s trial, to the successful popular campaign to oust President Otto Pérez Molina that culminated in 2015. Part One follows this trial during which Yates apparently enjoyed access to all relevant proceedings in the First Criminal Court of First instance for Criminal Justice, Drug Trafficking, and Environmental Crimes. Her coverage includes powerful testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors as well as footage of the eighty-six-year-old ex-generalissimo himself speaking in his own defense. Unfortunately for viewers who are not themselves Guatemalan lawyers, Yates’s coverage fails to thoroughly clarify the labyrinthine legal ins and outs and the implications of these proceedings. Though the dictator is found guilty of genocide in the aforementioned court, that decision is almost immediately and mysteriously annulled by another entity, the Constitutional Court, evidently because of some murky and unspecified procedural technicality. Nevertheless, the initial finding of guilt continues to be widely regarded as a noteworthy step by the Mayan resistance to assert indigenous access to the Guatemalan legal system and to rebuild historical memory.
Part Two, “Defending the Land,” uses indigenous female spokespersons, both Mayan activists, to explore some of the far-reaching social implications of the genocide for twenty-first-century Guatemala. Land tenure and natural resources represent the key issues in contention. The military’s scorched-earth campaigns and the massacres had resulted in the destruction of 626 indigenous communities; in addition, vast tracts of Mayan land had been stolen. In recent years, where indigenous communities once stood, immense megaprojects have ominously risen up: hydroelectric dams, open-pit mines, agribusiness ventures. During his presidency (2012–2015), retired general Otto Pérez Molina—himself frequently accused of human rights abuses—had been a foremost supporter of these multinational extractive industries. Journalist/social anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj proposes the following political approach to ousting Pérez Molina: Mayan unity must join with middle sectors and the nonindigenous urban population to forge a powerful alliance capable of facing up to the ruling elite.
The formation of just such an alliance is chronicled in Part Three, “The Uprising,” which tracks the five-month-long campaign of street protests in 2015 culminating in the forced resignation and then hours-later arrest of President Pérez Molina, who stood accused of participating in multimillion dollar fraud schemes. The tenacious, nonviolent citizen campaign to drive out Pérez Molina is widely regarded as the greatest protest movement in Guatemalan history. For some Guatemala observers, Pérez Molina’s forced removal signaled a possible end to the longstanding tradition of impunity amongst the military hierarchy and the ruling elites. In other corruption-plagued Latin American countries, certain crooked politicians and their ilk must have worried that Guatemala might be setting some sort of dangerous precedent.
500 Years is an optimistic, empowering film that justly celebrates the indigenous population’s major achievements in recent years in promoting social justice and creating a more open, inclusive, nonviolent, and truly democratic Guatemalan society in which racism and inequality might eventually be tamed. In terms of American viewers, the documentary may work best for those already somewhat familiar with the Guatemalan scene, since some key historical and sociopolitical dimensions remain unexamined. One such unexplored issue is the decisive role of the UN-supported investigative team—the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—that had painstakingly assisted local prosecutors and law enforcement in building the corruption case against Pérez Molina.
Perhaps the best solution for American viewers wishing to learn more is to take advantage of the upcoming 2018 campaign to screen Yates’s entire “Resistance Saga” trilogy—an event discussed in the following interview. In addition to the national theatrical tour of all three films, 500 Years will be available for free to Amazon Prime members worldwide, where Prime Video is available, on December 1, 2017 as part of the Amazon Video Direct Film Festival Stars program. The film will also be broadcast on January 1, 2018, on Public Broadcasting Service channels nationwide as part of the thirtieth anniversary of PBS’s POV series.
In May 2017, Cineaste spoke with the filmmaker about 500 Years and her Guatemalan trilogy at the forty-third edition of the Seattle International Film Festival, where her latest documentary played to receptive audiences.—Dennis West
Cineaste: The Muckleshoot Tribe is a partner sponsor of the Seattle International Film Festival and also one of the sponsors of 500 Years. Last night, in the festival’s question-and-answer session, you specifically recognized the tribe. Would you elaborate?
Pamela Yates: I think it is really important to honor the indigenous people on whose land we are having screenings of 500 Years, or of any of the films made in Guatemala from the indigenous Mayan perspective. We’ve become much more sensitive and sensitized to that. Although many people may know that in the last century a slow genocide happened in Latin America, as Americans we don’t often recall that genocide actually occurred in the United States, too. I know that because, as I go around speaking with the Guatemala films, I’ve asked students. They always think that genocides are events that happened “over there”—Armenia, Germany, etc. Sometimes they know about Guatemala, but they don’t think about it here. And it’s important to remember that. 500 Years, although it’s the story of Guatemala, really illustrates universal issues about justice, indigenous rights, corruption, and racism—topics that unite indigenous people throughout the Americas.
Cineaste: Speaking of the U. S. role in genocides, I don’t recall that President Bill Clinton actually used the precise term “genocide” when in 1999 in Guatemala he publicly apologized for America’s role in having for decades actively supported repressive Guatemalan military regimes.
Yates: He said he was sorry that the United States had armed and trained the Guatemalan military. The term the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth commission, used in describing what had happened during the war was “acts of genocide.” Those were also the very words used in the trial against Ríos Montt.
Cineaste: In the prologue of 500 Years, you feature a clip used originally in When the Mountains Tremble. This dramatic black-and-white footage appears to show a young man being abducted in full daylight on city streets by masked men. Specific questions have haunted me about this footage ever since I first saw it decades ago. Who gave this material to you and in what circumstances? How did you authenticate this footage? Could it possibly have been shot by a death-squad member her/himself? Has the victim ever been identified?
Yates: The footage was leaked to me when I was in Guatemala in 1982 by someone in the Resistance whose identity I must protect. When I resurrected it from our deep storage during the making of Granito, I went back to the source and asked the person if she/he could shed light on its provenance. She/he could not. I did further investigation but to no avail. I will never know who shot it. I did, however, analyze the footage frame by frame. It seems real. Not re-created, because those being taken away show real fear, and the perpetrators seem intent. I think it was shot by one of the death-squad members because the perpetrators have no fear; they know they have impunity.
In 500 Years, this footage is used as part of the historical section that examines how over time the rural indigenous organizing efforts united with the urban ladino and mestizo organizations. But they were targeted for death, for disappearance; and that cast a pall over political efforts for more than thirty years...until 2015.
Cineaste: When and why did you become an activist documentary filmmaker, and what were your influences and inspirations?
Yates: My filmmaking career began as a sound recordist. I was working on other people’s films in Nicaragua and El Salvador when I heard about the war in Guatemala. I wanted to be a film director, but I didn’t really know exactly how to do that.
Cineaste: I seem to remember shots of you tapping the boom microphone at the start of scenes in When the Mountains Tremble or in outtake material.
Yates: Right [Laughs]! So my partner Tom Sigel, who was also a filmmaker and a cinematographer, and I went together to Guatemala. I had already read Bitter Fruit [Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer]—and that made me so angry. And you know, anger is a good inspiration for documentary films. As an American citizen, I wanted to go to Guatemala and see the legacy wrought by military dictatorships catalyzed by the United States, and then bring that story back to the United States.
Cineaste: Were you equally interested in the late Seventies and early Eighties in the powerful revolutionary movements sweeping El Salvador and Nicaragua?
Yates: Very interested in them! I was the sound recordist on El Salvador, Another Vietnam [Glenn Silber and Teté Vasconcellos, 1981] and a number of other films. So I already knew Nicaragua and El Salvador, but not Guatemala. Guatemala is unusual because of its majority indigenous population, which gives it a completely different character. It’s also an incredibly beautiful and mystical country. So the combination of those things—American involvement, a majority indigenous population, dozens of volcanoes that run the length of the country—all that made me want to go there and investigate.
Cineaste: I recall that When the Mountains Tremble was filmed in 16mm. I assume that Granito and 500 Years were produced in nonfilm formats.
Yates: Right. The second and third were filmed on digital data cards.
Cineaste: How have these new nonfilm formats influenced your approach to cinematography, editing, and related issues?
Yates: I don’t think it has changed my ideas about cinematography or storytelling per se. For example, in my opinion the geography of the human face is one of the most beautiful panoramas of cinema. One of the hallmarks of all these films has been faces—looking at the faces and the faces looking at you, the way we connect as humans. 16mm is such a beautiful medium, so painterly. I wish I could continue to shoot in it. However, I would not have been able to shoot a thousand hours at the Ríos Montt genocide trial in 16mm and preserve that trial for generations to come.
Cineaste: Did you literally shoot a thousand hours?!
Yates: Yeah, because we shot the whole thing with two cameras. We are now in conversation concerning arrangements with the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California and with Duke University’s Human Rights Film Archive so researchers will actually be able to see every moment of that trial. I never could have done that with 16mm film. The digital revolution has given us tools to think differently and expand our creativity.
It has also given us tools to communicate with our subjects much more instantly. For example, I can use an encrypted platform to converse with a subject twenty times a day if I need to. It’s a secure communication; we’re much closer. In the case of When the Mountains Tremble, when I left Guatemala there was no way for me to get back in touch with any of the people who appear in the film. They could not call me. If they had wanted to, they’d have had to go to a central telephone location to make a long-distance call, which would probably have been overheard. We were cut off completely, and now we’re not.
Cineaste: Would you comment on your emphasis in 500 Years on indigenous women?
Yates: I didn’t set out exactly to make a film about indigenous women. It’s just that I found them to be the most interesting and intriguing storytellers for this particular story. The protagonists of this story are people I met during the Ríos Montt genocide trial.
I knew about Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj through her writing and her journalistic work, but I did not know her personally. I didn’t know how she would present, how she would speak, what she was like as a person. The trial really forced us into being colleagues because we never knew from one day to the next whether it would continue—whether the judge would be able to hold things together, hear all the evidence from both the prosecution and the defense, and come to a decision with her colleagues. That kind of tension and the desire we shared to see this story told about this genocide that had been denied—it all forged a unity between us and made our collaboration on 500 Years stronger.
What I didn’t know at that time, though, is what the forces were that had been let loose by the trial, and what their repercussions would be. I thought this film would be more about ideas of justice and talking about justice and whether the quest for justice is justice. But as it turned out, the Guatemalan people wrote the most beautiful script for Act Three.
Cineaste: Did you meet Andrea Ixchíu also during the trial?
Yates: I met Andrea on Facebook. If you want to produce films now and you want to meet people in their twenties or under, you do it on Facebook. She actually contacted me because she wanted to know if she could use When the Mountains Tremble and Granito in her work as a tribal leader in Totonicapán.
At Skylight we are incredibly open to having people use our films, especially Guatemalans. We not only have Spanish versions, but for Granito we also had Mayan-language versions of the film. We gave our masters to the biggest bootlegger in Guatemala, El Buki, because we want Guatemalans to have good copies of the films. You want a human rights film to be bootlegged. You don’t want just anybody to go into a theater and film off the screen and then have that deplorable image and sound. Guatemalans deserve good copies of our films.
Cineaste: Rigoberta Menchú featured so prominently in both When the Mountains Tremble and Granito, but she is only glimpsed in 500 Years.
Yates: I wanted to include Rigoberta in the telling of the story where it was most appropriate, which was during the trial. She came every day—such a great presence and gesture of solidarity on her part toward the people testifying in the trial! I don’t know whether you followed this, but about a year and a half later the Spanish Embassy trial commenced, which concerned the fire in which her father was burned to death, along with thirty-seven others. I think she was also at the Ríos Montt trial to listen and learn. Rigoberta has never given up on getting justice for the crimes committed, for seeking the whereabouts of the disappeared. That has been such a key role that she has played in Guatemala. However, she wasn’t really that present in the demonstrations.
It’s one of those things in documentary film. You start out with a cast of protagonists and some people go forward in their role, and some don’t play as large a role. This is the third film in a trilogy. You have to be sure you’re telling a different story—even though some aspects of it are exactly the same. So I tried to have a different style in each of the three films and to tell the story in a different way while carrying the story forward, revealing and unraveling it.
Cineaste: Speaking of women subjects in 500 Years, how wonderful that you got access to Zury Ríos, the controversial conservative politician, the faithful daughter of Ríos Montt. Was she aware of exactly who you were when you were interviewing her?
Yates: Actually, I did not go to the interview, but my crew did. I had already made Granito, and that film makes me a target now in Guatemala because I’m in the film and telling the story in the first person. I didn’t want to change the dynamic of that interview, and so it was carried out by a crew that asked my questions. Zury Ríos is a very good foil for everyone else.
Cineaste: Well, starting with how she looks, is dressed, how she carries herself, how she speaks, her attitudes. It’s striking to see that sort of elitist imagery and performance candidly on public display.
Yates: Yes! And when she ran for president, she must have gotten some media training because she changed all that. If you go online now to her Facebook page, you’ll see a really different presentation. Running for president she had to be more of a unifier, but I think during the time of the trial the elites were very worried that Ríos Montt was going to go down and be found guilty. Zury used that worry on the part of the business and political elite to say, “If my father goes down, you’re going to go down, too.” That was the pressure exerted to have the verdict vacated. She was instrumental in that role.
Cineaste: Is that Daniel Pascual’s sister appearing briefly in the clip from When the Mountains Tremble?
Yates: Yes, an amazing story! She’s in the end of Granito; we take the title of the film from what she says explaining the concept of granito—each of us having a tiny grain of sand to contribute to social change. We showed Granito in the Teatro Nacional in Guatemala City, the big theater that holds two thousand or so people. About a week later, I got a Facebook message saying, “I think that’s my sister in your film. We haven’t seen her in thirty years because she was killed in 1982.” I didn’t know her actual name, only her pseudonym—“Inés.” Nor did I know what happened to her, because how could I find out if I didn’t know her actual name? Daniel took a copy of the film home to his parents, they looked at it, and it was their daughter—María Magdalena Pascual Hernández. We went back into our footage and found about ten minutes of “Inés,” and we made a DVD for the family.
Cineaste: You mean by using old outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble?
Yates: Yes. And then we show her more completely in 500 Years. She was the older sister of Daniel, who is the most important peasant leader in Guatemala now, one of the top ten most influential political leaders in the country. This connection was just serendipity, but that kind of serendipity—or is it magical realism?—happens often in Guatemala.
Cineaste: Well, as I recall, doesn’t the man in Granito shown investigating the derelict archives of the National Police turn out to have been the comandante who had arranged for your admittance into the unit of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor depicted many years earlier in When the Mountains Tremble? He was a combatant himself who by chance survived that war, and who decades later you met up with in the archives. And after her appearance in When the Mountains Tremble, Rigoberta Menchú would go on years later to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!
Yates: Amazing, right? After I made When the Mountains Tremble, I didn’t go to Guatemala for ten years. I was persona non grata. Rigoberta was living in exile in Mexico. Then I started to dream about Guatemala, and within a few weeks Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which allowed her the opportunity to go back to Guatemala. Then shortly after, I went back also, returning with the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico who crossed the border.
Cineaste: It all does sound like García Márquez.
Yates: [Laughs] See? García Márquez didn’t make it up. He was just a great journalist.
Cineaste: Here is a pointed question. Both Isabel Acevedo’s feature documentary El buen Cristiano  and your own 500 Years do not clarify for nonlawyers the precise legal grounds for the Constitutional Court’s annulment of Ríos Montt’s conviction in the First Criminal Court. Why did you not completely clarify the grounds for annulment?
Yates: It is so complicated. First of all, to understand Guatemalan law and legal procedures you need to have a PhD in obfuscation! [Smiles] Okay, I know what it is, but to tell it in a film for a general audience…that’s tough. On the first day, when the judge wanted to carry forward the trial and the defense attorneys wanted to delay, delay, delay—their primary tactic, right?—they claimed that Ríos Montt had fired them. To bring in a new team of lawyers they would have to stay the proceedings for five days. The judge was not having any of it, and she was going to appoint public defenders. So, the defendant was in the courtroom, left unassisted by defense for about forty minutes. That was the procedural error that the Constitutional Court found. Now, of the five people on the Constitutional Court, three voted to vacate the verdict and two dissented. And their dissent was a vociferous dissent—they claim that the Constitutional Court ruling violated Guatemalan law. That is still being argued over. So, there are some stories in a documentary, in the narrative trajectory, you just cannot get into—too complicated.
Cineaste: I was surprised that Judge Barrios made such a mistake. Because it seemed to me such an obvious provocation when Ríos Montt’s defense team got up and left the courtroom.
Yates: Judge Yassmín Barrios was masterful at keeping a cool head in the face of the defense’s many provocations. In fact, she did a pretty marvelous job of not being provoked even when she was called every name in the book, not only in the courtroom but in the mainstream media. Ridiculous misogynistic comments about her clothes and comments such as, “Why don’t you go to a hair salon and get your hair done?”
The latest twist in this story is that the Center for Human Rights Legal Action has brought a suit against the Constitutional Court saying that the three Constitutional Court judges who voted to vacate the verdict were not working within the constitutional law of Guatemala and that they should be sanctioned. That suit is now moving forward. The Attorney General’s office is deciding whether there are grounds to bring charges against those judges. I think it’s really an interesting legal maneuver.
Cineaste: Two key omissions in the characterization of Ríos Montt in 500 Years stand out: there is no mention that he trained at the infamous School of the Americas in the United States, nor that he was an evangelical Christian figurehead with his own anticommunist, pro-Christian television show.
Yates: I told that story in When the Mountains Tremble, and I didn’t want to tell it again in 500 Years. That’s what I mean about what parts of the story you are going to tell anew. That was really the reason for focusing on other things, including the kind of “granular” evidence that was being presented in the courtroom.
Cineaste: Well, it just struck me that viewers who hadn’t seen When the Mountains Tremble then simply miss out on those two key points, which are so important. As I recall his television show, the vitriol that he spewed was extraordinary.
Yates: You do have to treat your audience with intelligence. If they want to know more, then they have to see the first two films. Actually, we are re-releasing them, and we’re calling the three films together “The Resistance Saga.” We’re planning to take it around to different cities in the United States in 2018. There will be a two-day forum in which we are going to have presenting partners and local groups in resistance working with the Mayan protagonists of 500 Years. This is meant to be an American event, an immersive cinematic event, where we work with local groups, organizing. So, hey, how many times in your life are you going to have three films out across thirty-five years, one story? When people ask what my next film is, I say this is my next project—the 2018 project is all about The Resistance Saga tour.
Cineaste: Social media and mobile phones as instruments for citizens’ nonviolent protest are so important in 500 Years. We’ve seen that theme in many recent documentaries set in other countries. What percent of indigenous folks in Guatemala today who are somewhat active politically can afford to buy a cell phone and pay for the service? Or is it just mainly the leaders who are using this medium?
Yates: Everyone in Guatemala has a cell phone. Two million Guatemalans are on Facebook in Guatemala, not counting the diaspora. So it is widespread and it is ubiquitous. It’s considered a necessary tool.
Cineaste: What is the television station we see footage of? How is it funded?
Yates: You mean the Tz’ikin TV, the program online and on cable television? That is funded by local and international NGOs such as Hivos, the Dutch foundation.
Cineaste: How many viewers do they have?
Yates: It’s hard to know exactly because they have the channel online, and local cable stations that still exist in Guatemala pick it up so they feel great about putting a weekly show out there that’s spreading.
Cineaste: In an interview, Daniel Pascual mentions cultural genocide, but you don’t explore that much. It would seem to be a major issue since the civil war had so thoroughly rent the indigenous social fabric in the countryside. For instance, the current situation of indigenous languages, which ones are still thriving, and which disappearing. But you probably really didn’t have time for it.
Yates: In fact, I did discuss that in my interview with him. But in the footage in 500 Years he is specifically talking about the case and the vacating of the verdict, and I didn’t want to go off into that other direction right there. It would be really good to publish the whole interview, and we can do this in the digital age. The entire interview I did with Ríos Montt in 1982 lasts forty-five minutes, and it is published online, on our Skylight YouTube channel. So now we can do things like that which would get into much more detail about such a fascinating subject as cultural genocide.
Cineaste: Every time I see your three films, whenever the military appear—the rank and file—I am struck by how many of the faces are indigenous and how much of the brutal grunt work of genocide was actually conducted by young men apparently from indigenous backgrounds themselves.
Yates: So insidious. And the civilian patrols were turning Mayans against Mayans. Really cruel. But you know, many people don’t consider themselves indigenous if they’ve gone to the city and then subsequently dress or speak differently—even though their faces may suggest their indigenous origin.
Cineaste: Of course, they’ve become ladinos.
Yates: There is one ladino character in 500 Years, Julio Solórzano, who doesn’t appear until Part Three. He gives the context from the nonindigenous perspective as to what the indigenous people are trying to do and the importance of the alliance that they are trying to build.
But for ten years, from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties, Irma Alicia, the anthropologist-lawyer, worked as a journalist for El Periódico in Guatemala City and in Quetzaltenango. Nobody knew she was indigenous. She didn’t dress traditionally; she speaks beautiful Spanish—she’s poetic in her Spanish—and nobody knew. She wanted it that way because it allowed her to do the work she wanted to do, which was to collect documentation on what was happening in the country then and build a library in her house in Quetzaltenango for these historical documents.
Cineaste: How is that work going now? Does she have a lot of material?
Yates: She has a lot of material. She needs to raise money to archive her library. I’d love to help her do that. I’m not an archivist, but I think it would be invaluable.
Cineaste: Speaking of documentation, what is the status currently of all the papeleo and other perishable material in the five buildings of the National Police Archive depicted in Granito? Is there still funding to preserve it?
Yates: A lot of the funding from the European Union countries to the Police Archives has ended, unfortunately. The United States was never a big funder of it, although they should be. But, the Guatemalans have made really important advances—they have scanned and digitized all the documents from 1976 to 1996, when the peace accords were signed. That was their primary goal—do that first and then, with whatever means remained, go more slowly. They have documentation from 1886.
Cineaste: It must represent one of the greatest stores of information characterizing a given bureaucracy ever uncovered in any country in the last three centuries. Thanks to the Hispanic bureaucratic obsession to write everything down and to document everything, to have saved all that material is extraordinary.
Yates: It really is—eighty million documents!
Cineaste: And in that Guatemala City climate, with all that humidity. I still remember your traveling shots in Granito inside the archives revealing the water puddles on the floor. I can still imagine the mold, the mildew, rats, and whatnot attacking the videotapes, the papers, the computer discs, and the films.
Yates: It doesn’t look like that anymore. They’ve really done an incredible job of cleaning, organizing, and scanning.
Cineaste: In 500 Years you have beautiful and effective aerial shots of the crowds of demonstrators against Pérez Molina. I was reminded of all the Popular Unity supporters in the streets in a couple of aerial shots in Patricio Guzmán’s black-and-white The Battle of Chile. In terms of color imagery, though, your aerial shot looking down at the plaza is so out of the ordinary. Such an aerial shot wouldn’t look anything like that in Berlin, Buenos Aires, or New York City. How did you get those aerial shots?
Yates: I put a GoPro camera on a drone. A drone is a great and important new tool for documentary filmmakers. This was my first drone shoot.
Cineaste: As you were filming and putting 500 Years together, did you consciously think about the textiles, the women’s beautiful clothing? They are such a brilliant part of the imagery of your film.
Yates: Yes, I did think about it consciously, but those colors, that imagery, are everywhere. The people in the film are thinking about it consciously. The way Irma Alicia dresses and conducts herself is very much along those lines. There are certain things I brought to the film as a director, and there are certain things that I’m observing as a director that I think are real manifestations of the person’s character and cosmovision. Irma Alicia’s attire is definitely part of her character and cultural outlook. She designs her own clothes; someone else makes them for her, but she works with them on designs. They are traditional garments, but, for instance, she specifies the animals to include so that the designs express her view of the relationship between animals and nature.
Cineaste: There was very definitely a similarity among the huipiles that she, her daughter, and her mother wore when they were posing for that family portrait.
Yates: One of my favorite moments in the film is the photograph taken by Daniel Hernández-Salazar of Irma Alicia and her daughter during the reading of the verdict in the genocide trial, and what Irma Alicia is “saying” there. The fact that they are both sitting there, both dressed in the traditional dress of Quetzaltenango was also a statement that, “We Maya K’iche’s are here with you Maya Ixiles.” So those clothes are speaking on many different levels and sending many different messages; some we understand and some we don’t.
Irma Alicia comes from a middle-class merchant family in Quetzaltenango, which is why she has been able to study and go to university and get her PhD and why there are photographs of her family members—they had the wherewithal to take photographs. How fortunate for us that those historical photographs exist!
Cineaste: I guessed that while viewing the film, when she mentioned that she had shoes, milk, access to education growing up—that had to be a middle-class background.
Yates: Right. And yet her mother was illiterate.
Cineaste: At what point were the women of her class allowed to be educated in Guatemalan society?
Yates: It’s really Irma Alicia’s generation. She’s one of the first Mayan PhDs in Guatemala.
Cineaste: You have referred to 500 Years as an epic story since Mayan leaders are now prominent on the world stage. Would you elaborate?
Yates: It’s just that they have been doing it so long and they have such a body of knowledge about nonviolent resistance. You think about Rigoberta Menchú. You think about Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj—she is now teaching graduate students in the United States in the Anthropology Department at Duke University. You think of people who are not only in resistance in Guatemala but are contributors, like those two. They are on the world stage, and they are contributing to global ideas. Irma Alicia travels around often to Hawaii and South America to speak at conferences and to indigenous groups and political leaders. I think that we are going to see a lot of her in the future in Guatemala—she’s a tremendous leader.
I also wanted to say that, pursuant to your question about the women in 500 Years, I am a woman film director and so I see things differently, and I see the inherent qualities in these leaders and appreciate them in ways that other people may not. They are all so worthy of my attention: for instance, in Granito Alejandra García appears, the daughter who becomes a lawyer. These are all incredible women who have a lot to say and are forging the future of their country. And who now are on the world stage.
Cineaste: You mentioned earlier that you strived for a particular style in each of the three films of the trilogy. Could you elaborate on that in relation to 500 Years?
Yates: The first images of 500 Years are grainy black-and-white ones, footage from the Guatemala of the 1940s. I created an ominous tone, with five different people look right at the camera as if to say, “This is a film and I’m in it”—an echo of the conscious breaking down of the fourth wall and of my role as a documentary filmmaker as manifested in When the Mountains Tremble and Granito. Of course, in 500 Years I wanted to continue the voices of the Mayan women and come full circle from Rigoberta Menchú in 1982 to the lead protagonists of 500 Years—Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj and Andrea Ixchíu in 2017.
Cineaste: That kite motif at the end of the film is such a colorful, uplifting, and effective symbol—the collective effort to raise the kite—it falls to earth, they try it again, and so forth. How did you come up with the idea of using that motif to close the film?
Yates: The Sumpango kites are a beautiful Mayan cultural tradition, handmade of colored paper and flown on the Day of the Dead. I talked to several groups there and finally met Las Orquídeas, The Orchids, an all-woman group of young artists. The central image on their kite was Ixchel, the goddess of weaving, and they had included a social justice slogan: “Weaving ideas and dreams”—a perfect reflection of the women protagonists in 500 Years! It wasn’t the windy season anymore, but the idea was to at least raise the kite. At first we couldn’t. Even with all the difficulties, however, we had to finally get the kite airborne. It actually turned out to be a much better scene than I had envisioned—a perfectly imperfect way to end the film.
What Irma Alicia says during that sequence, about the ongoing struggle in Guatemala is when our two voices are united. I feel the same way she does. She says, “For those of us really active in the struggle, now we know that we can die in peace because the next generation is going to take the struggle forward.” It’s bittersweet, right?—that we weren’t able to deliver the world that we wanted, but our children are going to take it forward for us.
Cineaste: You raise in 500 Years this question of the new extractive industries sprouting up in the countryside after the civil war and the impact they will have on native peoples. I hope you will explore those pressing issues in a fourth documentary about Guatemala. The topic seems made to order for you. Have you thought about such a fourth film?
Yates: I haven’t, but I will.
Cineaste: Of course, the extractive industries question has its roots in the arrival of the Europeans on the shores of the Americas. During the colonial period, indigenous labor extracted the silver from Cerro Rico, in Bolivia, that bankrolled the Spanish Empire. The Amazon Rubber Boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enslaved indigenous peoples. The banana company immortalized in 100 Years of Solitude is, of course, United Fruit, which did historically foment a massacre of its workers near Santa Marta, Colombia. So this extractive industry challenge now facing Guatemalan and other indigenous peoples is an age-old problem that continues to plague many Latin American societies. And of course we have the Standing Rock situation right now here in the United States.
Yates: Natural resources and multinational extractive industries—that’s obviously going to be the issue uniting indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. And it’s starting. Standing Rock was such an inspiration. It really was, and really made Americans think for the first time in a long time about indigenous Americans in this country. The meaning of the phrase “500 years” is gaining currency.
When the Mountains Tremble, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, and 500 Years are distributed in the United States by Skylight Pictures.
Dennis West is a contributing editor at Cineaste. Joan M. West is a professor emerita at the University of Idaho.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1