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.”


As storytellers we re-present reality to an audience, trying to pass along what we have learned on the way. These human stories of fear, love and courage are as old as winters around a Neanderthal fire, and as modern as tomorrow. But the context and complexities of society in which these stories play out is ever changing. Our reality lies scattered before us like shards of ancient pottery exposed in an archaeological dig, waiting for someone with the desire and knowledge and patience to put them together in some coherent, understandable order.

Enter the long form documentary editor.

The edit room is where the pieces come together. Here in this darkened room, in front of the monitor — the vision, knowledge and hopes of the director, the editor, and the producer reverberate and collide with the reality of the material captured and collected on location. Lying quietly in a dozen three terabyte drives attached to my edit machine are hundreds of hours of video and audio — vérité scenes, an entire genocide trial filmed gavel to gavel, nine months of social protests including the largest demonstrations in the history of Guatemala, dozens of interviews, and an assortment of archival footage — waiting to leap to life as I attempt to recreate and retell the incredible moment in history that is 500 YEARS.

I was no stranger to the material for this edit assignment and the history it represents. Some of the footage is part of my creative DNA, material I produced and edited in 1982 for When the Mountains Tremble. Some of it I worked 6 years ago with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, but the bulk is new, and that is always the most exciting. You never know where you are going to find the magic gems that will power the edit.

Like most Skylight projects, the building blocks of 500 YEARS were forged on location in the field, but the story is crafted in post. I listened carefully to our constant discussions in my edit room, storing away with my collaborators’ comments for later use. But I also work from my own sense of social responsibility. I approach the edit like a watercolor artist, first using light colored washes to cover the paper with the general structure of the story. How does it end, where does it begin, and what is the climax? Which protagonist can tell the story, and what ancillary information will the audience need?

I approached the edit of 500 YEARS with a double challenge. The first hurdle was to mold an understandable story from the complexities of a three-year social reality, but added to that was my desire to make the story universal, a story that will resonate with the viewers’ own experience so that they come away not only with new knowledge, but with renewed confidence to construct their own pathways to the future. From the beginning I was certain that this was a story about the possibilities of social change in Guatemala told by Mayan protagonists. It would involve racism, systemic violence, a quest for justice and the desire for liberation from a 500-year yoke of oppression. What I realized as we came to understand the richness of the material we had to work with, was that the primary human quality in the film would be resistance; resistance to an ongoing genocide that threatened Mayan lands, culture and lives. Furthermore, what I learned from our footage was that the possibilities for change lay not only with the Mayan people who form a majority in Guatemala, but in new alliance between indigenous and non-indigenous people. The theme of resistance, along with the difficulties and opportunities of an alliance across the yawning Guatemala gulf of racism might be the ideas that could resonate with people in the U.S. and in vastly different arenas of social struggle.

We also wanted to make 500 YEARS different from our earlier two Guatemalan films. Pamela, as director, had strong ideas about the visual communication in the film, and taking our lead from this I looked for ways into the story; how to set the visual storytelling style, hook the viewer, and set things in motion. Unlike GRANITO where we used a first person narration, 500 YEARS would have no narrator. Instead we devised ways to lead the viewer through the complex social realities of Guatemala utilizing commentary from the main protagonists, as well as simple graphic representations of factual information. In the all-important finishing of the film I was able to work with a brilliant music composer, great graphic designers, and a top flight color grader and sound mixer.

As the final version of 500 YEARS emerged in its full visual and audio glory, I know that the film I had labored so long to bring to light no longer belongs to me, but rather it is now out in the world, waiting to become part of all who see it. So it is with great excitement that we go on to Sundance and followed by a world of screenings, where I will get to reclaim the film, seeing it through fresh eyes, and hear the tale I have told.


Pamela Yates, Director
Peter Kinoy, Editor
Paco de Onís, Producer
Melle van Essen & Rene Soza, Cinematography

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj
Matilde Terraza Gallego
Daniel Pascual Hernández
Andrea Ixchíu Hernández
Julio Solórzano Foppa