500 YEARS — Review by Cate Marquis

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Director Pamela Yates well-made, affecting 500 YEARS is the third and final film in her documentary series on Guatemala and the Mayan people’s ongoing struggle for democracy and justice in that country. Although the film is the third in the series, it stands well on its own, recapping critical points from the first two films. Clips from the first two films, WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE and GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, are included in this final one. The first film, in 1983, actually provided evidence in the trial of former military leader and president Montt, that trial being the subject of the second film. Continue reading…

The title of Yates’ new documentary refers to the 500 years that have elapsed since the Spanish conquistadors arrived and subjugated the Mayans in Guatemala. Although much of the documentary’s focus is on these indigenous people, the cycle of films also documents Guatemala’s struggle towards self-determination and greater equality since a popular uprising in 1944 first established a democratic government. That phase was short-lived, when the U.S. government, fueled by Cold War fears of communism and urged on by corporate interests, replaced the president in a coup with the first of several military dictators.

The parallels with the history and struggles of other indigenous peoples and with other nations whose populations fought back against corrupt governments, meddling foreign powers and multinational business interests are apparent, if unspoken. The same is true for how those struggles have changed since the Arab Spring.

The previous two films focused on the military rule, the seizure of Mayan lands, the war of resistance, and the genocide in the decades that followed the coup, and the efforts to bring one of the military leaders involved to justice. In 500 YEARS, that story is continued but we also see how modern technology (particularly cell phones) and the rise of citizen journalists have transformed the battle. In the hands of a media-savvy new generation of Mayan grassroots leaders the fight changed from armed conflict in remote villages to non-violent resistance on a world stage.

On the whole, the film is visually appealing. The documentary is beautifully filmed, showing off the colorful traditional Mayan attire as well as the country’s natural beauty while Mayans leaders talk about wanting to preserve that natural world in face of mining interests. Dividing the film into three parts, Yates introduces us to the issues, but more importantly to individual people and personal stories in this fitful march to freedom. We learn enough about the individuals involved to care about them. At the same time, the director takes care to always be clear on what it happening as events unfold, so the audience feels connected to the greater sweep of events. The film ends on a hopeful note, one that has the Mayan poised to take a place as equals their country.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 500 Years is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week (#MOTW) for July 21-28

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.