Pamela Yates talks 500 YEARS and Career Commitments (Exclusive) — Jennifer Merin interviews

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pamela yates reelPamela Yates makes movies that make a difference.

Some 35 years in the making, Yates’ trilogy, The Resistance Saga, is a series of documentaries about the Mayan people’s human rights struggle in Guatemala that actually helped to change the course of history of that country.

Viva La Resistance

Footage from the first of the three films, When the Mountains Tremble, was used as forensic evidence in the criminal prosecution of former Guatemalan dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, and his subsequent conviction for crimes against humanity.

The second film in the series, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, covered the evolution of the human rights trial, its outcome and effects.

And the third and final film, 500 Years, brings coverage of the Mayan people’s struggle up to the present, while setting it into the context of a centuries-long history of persecution and exploitation.

500 Years premiered recently at the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, where it was the finale of a day-long special presentation of the entire trilogy. The film opens in theaters on July 14.

For this exclusive interview, Yates answered questions on July 4. Celebrating Independence Day, with The Resistance Saga in mind. What perfectly appropriate timing.

pamela yates sound

JENNIFER MERIN: How did you first encounter the subject and theme of your films and how did your long-term commitments to subject and theme develop?

PAMELA YATES: 500 YEARS caps a trilogy of films that represent my 35 year journey with Guatemala, a country I went to at a young age to investigate the role that my country, the United States, played in destroying democracy and imposing a legacy of brutal military dictatorships. Little did I realize the role that the documentary I made back then would have in the present. The Mayans brought the first case in history for genocide against indigenous people and footage from my 1982 film became key forensic evidence in the conviction of the dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013. The story of 500 YEARS takes you through the General’s 2013 genocide trial that let loose forces emboldening people to defend their land and hold the government accountable. Incredibly, they even brought down a sitting President on charges of corruption, the inspiring finale of the film.

pamela yates mountain posterpamela yates granito posterpamela yates 500 years poster

JM: What aspects of your work — ie funding, access, technical issues in the field, distribution, etc — have been the most challenging, and what are some of the creative ways you’ve found to overcome the challenges?

PY: I’ve always found the difficulties in filmmaking to be the place where we can apply our utmost creativity. Funding for example: how was I presenting the story and how could I tease out the universal values to make it accessible to all, and convince the funders? What if we transformed Skylight Pictures, our film production company into a non-profit human rights media company that created programs for the field of documentary filmmaking as well as feature length documentary films, and that way attract core funding? This meant that we’d have to raise less money for each film too. That’s what we did with Skylight.

pamela yates nyffDistribution with its attending gatekeepers has been a frustration that reinforces structural racism and sexism. I say, why accept those models of distribution? Let’s make our own, create a hybrid model and then through outreach and engagement campaigns connect directly with our audiences. Let’s make a free/pay model where we give the film away for free where we can’t make money and sell it where we can. In Guatemala we give masters of our films to the biggest bootlegger – he’s called “El Buki”- and he makes sure they are in every market stall across the country. You want your human rights films to be bootlegged!

JM: What aspects of your work have you found to be most rewarding?

PY: Having a life-long relationship with the protagonists in the films is everything.

pamela yates rigoberts with hand upI worked with a 23-year old Mayan woman who became the storyteller in my 1982 film When the Mountains Tremble. Her name was Rigoberta Menchú and we traveled around the world together with the film helping consolidate the movement to stop US aid to the military regimes in Central America. The film helped put Rigoberta on the world stage and 10 years later she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first indigenous person to be so honored.

All the protagonists in Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, mostly women, who came from many backgrounds yet found common ground working together to build the genocide case against General Ríos Montt, are still close friends and advisors. In 500 YEARS, I had a close collaboration with Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, an anthropologist, author and public intellectual as well as Andrea Ixchíu a dynamic Mayan youth leader. I think the fact that I collaborate so closely with the protagonists and involve them in every aspect of the production as well as the multi-year outreach campaigns is a key and very stimulating component of the model we’ve developed. 

JM: How have your experiences over the years changed your definition of nonfiction filmmaking and your perspectives about its place in the broader context of our cinema/media culture?

pamela yates 2PY: I’ve always been open to and excited by experimentation and innovation in the documentary film genres. For example, what’s come to be known as “hybrid” documentaries. I’ve been part of it since the start, doing some scenes as dramatizations strictly adhering to declassified CIA documents in the 1982 film When the Mountains Tremble and I was roundly criticized for not using archival footage. So I encourage the trend of finding new ways, artistic ways that are as varied as the filmmakers’ sensibilities in storytelling. It’s just so liberating! That being said, we must be careful not to falsify facts. There must be a rigorous journalistic basis, a fact check even. With a factual basis we can then layer beauty, pathos, and new forms of artistry on top.

JM: What are the primary differences in the presentation of narratives in nonfiction and fiction films?

PY: Most non-fiction films are journeys of discovery. My films take years to make, I’m following a story and am often so surprised as to where it leads me. And I ask myself: Can I be nimble enough to understand where the story is going, how people change, how they rise to the occasion, how they realize their fullest potential? I’m looking for the strongest material to lead the story. I have a love/hate relationship with the fact that the more I try to control the story, the more likely I am to get it wrong.

JM In documentary filmmaking, how are audiences to judge authenticity?

PY Wouldn’t it be great if we had a central fact checking non-profit where we could all submit the final cuts before locking? It would be along the lines of the renowned New Yorker fact checking department. Then we’d have research to back up assertions and we could even publish the fact checks on our sites.

JM: How as a documentary filmmaker do you mediate between your personal ideology and beliefs and what you witness or discover in the field while researching and shooting your film?

pamela yates combat 1PY: If I could give advice to my younger self, I’d tell her not to be afraid of facts and beliefs that don’t seem to square with her idea about the world, with her ideas about how to create social change. Our imperfections, our mistakes, our missteps are what make us amazing human beings and this openness only strengthens our films. I work on being tolerant, and on deepening my understanding of people in my films, the heroines as well as the villains.

JM: Can documentary films change the way people feel and behave? Can you point to concrete examples, including those from your own work?

PY: Of course they do! But documentaries are a contributing factor, a key factor, not the only factor. I’ve already mentioned two of my own examples above, but let me explain further. What I’m concentrating on is telling stories that change the historical narrative of what actually happened from the perspective of those who are not the powerful, nor usually, the included.

pamela yates in group of women

For example, in 500 YEARS the lead protagonist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj tells us the fact that the sole genocide in the Americas in the 20th century happened in Guatemala, yet Guatemalans are not taught this history in high school nor in college. It’s a historical cover-up. And by telling us the stories of victims and survivors of this genocide, she changes what Guatemalans now believe happened in their civil war. Plus, she opens her mouth and poetry comes out – she’s an impressive storyteller and an important public intellectual.

JM: Women who make movies have traditionally found more opportunity in documentary filmmaking. Why is that true? And, have opportunities for women filmmakers in documentary and narrative films increased, lessened or remained the same during the span of your career?

pamela yates editingPY: Women are interested and curious about other people. We’re interested in connecting and the documentary genres are fertile ground for us. And honestly, there is less money at stake, so it’s easier to be an independent filmmaker free from others telling you how to make your film. We don’t have to raise all the money as in fiction films, we can raise parts and show that we have a great story to tell, then attract more funding. And we work hard to make the documentary field more of a community where women help other women. There are more opportunities for women now in documentary filmmaking because we created them! I was just at the Miami Good Pitch where all 8 documentaries pitched were directed by women. The stats in feature filmmaking are abysmal and we’ve got to work on that.

JM: Do you think that being female has given you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process? And, are women filmmakers’ approaches to documentary filmmaking fundamentally different from those of male colleagues? If so, how?

pamela yates 1PY: I grew up in a family with four sisters, no brothers. It made me a woman’s woman – a person who loves women. After making When the Mountains Tremble I realized that I found women’s perspectives to have great depth and vision. And that perspective brought so much to my non-fiction storytelling. I chose a 23-year old Mayan woman to tell the story of Guatemala’s civil war in 1982 when everyone was used to network bloviators bringing us the news.

My approach to documentary filmmaking has always been to feature the players who are actors in the story, not the experts. That has made the films more vibrant, more unpredictable. I’ve also told the stories with the women, not about them. It makes a huge difference.

JM: Who are the filmmakers whose work has most inspired/influenced your own?

PY: Susan Meiselas’ (Pictures from a Revolution), Tatiana Hueso’s (Tempestad, El Lugar Más Pequeño) Patricio Guzmán’s life-time commitment to making films about Chile, and Katie Galloway’s documentaries about mass incarceration. I found Heather Rae’s Trudell unforgettable.

I am also inspired by the energy of young filmmakers bursting onto the scene: Yance Ford, Sabrina S. Gordon, Petra Costa, Isabel Alcantara and Sabaah Folayan. And who could not be moved by Michèle Stephenson’s 13-year epic American Promise (with Joe Brewster) and what insight it gave us?

JM: What are your career plans for the future?

pamela-yatesPY: Though 500 YEARS is completed and culminates my trilogy of films about long term resistance by the Mayans of Guatemala, now we aim to amplify the impact of 500 YEARS by combining it with the first two films in the trilogy (When the Mountains Tremble (1982) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) in an immersive cinematic event designed to celebrate and reinforce movements for rights. We call it The Resistance Saga.

The Resistance Saga traces an epic arc of history about imagining a different world, a better world. The films express universal themes of our best selves – themes of justice, the quest for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights, while challenging racism, greed, and corruption. And we’ll take The Resistance Saga on the road in 2017/2018 into the heartland of the USA and we’ll launch it in Guatemala too, led by the Mayan protagonists in the films.

JM: Have you any advice and/or tips to give to young women colleagues who wish to advance their careers in documentary filmmaking?

pame;a yates with palms PY: Find others to work with. Every aspect of making documentary films is just so damn hard. Sharing the struggles with others is life-affirming. Together we can even find humor on the battlefield.

Be generous. It’s the only way to create a sustainable life. We’re not rich but we lead rich lives.

It takes a life-long commitment to make real change, something I learned from the 500-year resistance to colonialism by the Mayans of Guatemala. Resistance is not a quick fix, a definitive victory. Our rights are never guaranteed, we must always defend them, nurture them, strengthen them. Resistance is a stance, it’s an attitude, it’s a way of life. Life in Resistance. ¡Viva la Resistancia!

EDITOR’S NOTE: 500 Years receives its theatrical roll out in selected theaters during July and August 2017. Special screenings of The Resistance Saga in its entirely are also scheduled. For more information, visit The Resistance Saga Website.

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