Culture, Screen

Pamela Yates: On how Guatemala faced up to power

She talks about her documentary ‘500 years’, which tells the story of the recent milestones passed by this Latin American country, small in area, but large in convictions. Interest in collective empowerment and indigenous resistance distinguish her work. On this occasion, she was accompanied by the Mayan activist Andrea Ixchíu.


Photo: Daniel Hernandez Salazar
Photo: Daniel Hernandez Salazar

“I went to Guatemala for the first time in 1982, because I was angry with my own country for having overthrown Jacob Árbenz in 1954, and the legacy of military dictatorships which resulted from that”.

These are the words of the US director Pamela Yates, who after 35 years of a journey which would change her life, has not lost the energy that motivated her on that first occasion.

Passing through London to present ‘500 years’, the most recent documentary of her prolific filmography, as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the director talks about the collective empowerment and indigenous resistance which distinguish her work.

Together with ‘Cuando las montañas tiemblan’ (When the mountains tremble, 1983), and Granito: cómo atrapar un dictador (Granito: how to catch a dictator, 2011), ‘500 years’ forms part of this trilogy called ‘Saga de la resistencia’, each one of which she has brought to premiere in the Sundance film festival.

“When, in 2013, we heard the news that a genocide trial was about to start of Efraín Ríos Montt – whom I interviewed in 1982, and whose case I had been following – we decided to film the whole trial with two cameras”, explains Yates.

And so begins ‘500 years’, with the historic judgement of the dictator, who was in power between 1982 and 1983.

Photo: Saul Martinez

Although the director was thinking of recording it and posting it on the internet so that the world could see it, this would just be the starting signal of the documentary, which culminates in September 2015, with the expulsion and resignation of president Otto Pérez Molina, accused of corruption.

Fundamental to the sequence of events – and to their documentary telling – is the active role of the indigenous Mayan population, who made the charge of genocide against Rios Montt, and defended their lands against attempts to exploit them.

Among them, stands out the figure of the young activist Andrea Ixchíu, who used all the means available to her to inform her people and the whole world about the abuses against the Mayan people, and the demonstrations they held.

“Definitely, the social movements, and above all the moments of social explosion and mobilisation, are related to external conditions which generated much oppression. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have always been activists, because there is a political and economic system which always excludes us from decision-making”, explains Andrea to The Prisma, who met with her and the director at the premiere of the film in London.

“70% of the poor in Guatemala are indigenous, and within this percentage, 35% are suffering extreme poverty”, she adds.

PPamela yates 500 años filmamela Yates and Andrea Ixchíu explain to The Prisma why and how Guatemala dared confront power.

During the trial of Rios Montt the justice system is described as ‘an enormous monster wearing a tie’. Has anything changed since everything that has happened in the country?

Pamela Yates: The problems still exist but after Rios Montt’s trial, that also led to a movement for justice and to examine the crimes of the past. For example, Benedicto Lucas Garcia – the ex-chief of the armed forces – is already in prison awaiting trial.

Andrea Ixchiu: After his trial for genocide we have seen heavy sentences in the case of Sepur Zarco, and the case of the burning down of the Spanish Embassy, among others. Many cases have been opened against soldiers related to massacres. But while cases are being started for genocide, local courts are also starting criminal cases against indigenous leaders.

P: The judicial system and the laws are made by the elite. If we want justice, we have to understand how to subvert the laws, subvert the justice system for ourselves. And that is a continuing struggle. We are talking about starting initiatives to get justice, but at the same time the justice system is criminalizing the activists. That is the tension.

Pamela yates 500 años youtubeIt is striking that indigenous peoples are seen as an ‘inferior race’, given that from abroad the inheritors of Mayan culture are seen as a very advanced culture. How is that?

A: We are talking about a very strong system of colonisation and racism, which has been soaked into the collective unconscious. The ways that the population has been educated are brutal. One of the experts in the genocide trial, Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, in his book ‘Guatemala, lineage and racism’, explains the organisation of the colonial education system in Guatemala, and how racism is so deeply rooted among the political elites in power, who constructed a whole narrative to justify the genocide. It is difficult to remove the racist DNA from a country. It will take generations.

Just as in other countries, the USA played a key role in the history of Guatemala. The odd thing is that you are saying this as a US director. Does the US still have the same influence it had before?

P: President Clinton went to Guatemala in the ‘90s to apologise to the Guatemalan people, but that is not enough. The USA, and we its citizens must always remain aware of what is happening in Guatemala, and in Central and South America, and pressure our government to do what is morally correct, and not just act in their own political and economic interests. Because we are neighbours, and we live in a globalized world.

Marcha_Campesina_Guatemala_Wikimedia_CommonsIn the massive demonstrations of 2015 that brought down Pérez Molina we saw banners that said: ‘They have even stolen my fear’. What did you feel when that happened?

A: It was unexpected. We were used to living in a country where impunity is the rule, and where silence about the massacres and the terribly repressive army is the norm. So, in Guatemala City there was almost complete silence for decades, people were used to seeing injustices in other places and they didn’t react.

We didn’t know how to link the values of human rights, which are sometimes very abstract, to the daily life of that people were living. For a lot of people, defending life and defending water rights are very abstract things. But when someone talks about corruption, and says that the public funds that Otto Pérez Molina stole meant that you couldn’t go to a health centre and get medicine, that affects people’s daily lives. And that is also defending life.

It was very moving to be involved in politics at that moment, and especially to have the opportunity to document and transmit it. It was a very intense and moving experience.

Pamela yates 500 años yfree filmP: It was a great satisfaction, because as a film-maker, the visual representation of discontent and the meaning of fighting corruption, and that we are going to bring down the President is crucial. It was a great satisfaction to know that the USA had to change, but not from the top downwards, but coming from below, the street, the demonstrations in front of the embassy and the State Department demanding that they stop supporting Pérez Molina.

(Photos: Saúl Martínez, Daniel Hernández Salazar, Wikimedia Commons)

 (Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:




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