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Justice prevails at last in 500 Years, the third documentary in Pamela Yates’ Guatemalan trilogy, a work hitting screens 34 years after the first installment, 1983’s When the Mountains Tremble. That courageous film revealed, in horrific combat footage, the little-reported genocide that a U.S.-backed Guatemalan government waged against indigenous Mayans in the country’s western highlands; more than 100,000 Mayans died. Decades later, Yates’ stunning footage became evidence in the survivors’ case against José Efraín Ríos Montt, the junta leader behind the attacks that destroyed more than 600 villages. Yates’ follow-up, 2011’s gripping Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, examined efforts to bring Ríos Montt to trial, which included gathering the stories of Mayan witnesses — and the filmmaker herself searching through her 1982 outtakes for incriminating video. As a member of Guatemala's Congress, Ríos Montt enjoyed immunity from prosecution through the second half of the aughts; at the completion of his term, in early 2012, he at last was indicted.
Yates’ new film returns to the highlands, gathering the testimony of Mayan activists and survivors before leaping into Ríos Montt’s 2013 trial, proceedings that prove heartening and horrifying. More than 100 Mayans describe the executions of their families as Ríos Montt himself stares into nothingness, sometimes refusing to make eye contact with the judges. His lawyers, cruel and theatrical clowns, storm out of the courtroom, denouncing the trial as illegal. One tells the judges that he’ll imprison them someday. Ríos Montt speaks only once, a final statement before the judges retire to deliberate. His message echoes that of every tyrant ever accused of a crime: There is no evidence. (One bizarre detail here might stir fear in American hearts: After the truth-denying leader’s first conviction, his poised adult daughter, as immaculate in her couture as she is in her parroting of his lies, announces her own bid for the presidency.)
There are mountains of evidence, laid out by the prosecutors and, on screen, by Yates. The trial, of course, is a triumph and a disaster, the eventual verdict undone by another court. But that painful revelation is followed by legitimate revolution. An emboldened press and a government watchdog group reveal to the public the extent of the ruling class’s corruption, a scandal rising right up to President Otto Pérez Molina, himself a key figure in the ’82 murders — and a proponent of turning the Mayans’ lands over to mining and hydroelectric companies.
The final reels follow a people’s uprising and the ousting of Molina, rare good news in a land (and a series of films) haunted by the violence that the powerful have always felt free to visit upon the powerless. The template for today’s issue-oriented documentaries is to showcase a devastating and intractable problem but then suddenly, in the final moments, insist that we should be hopeful, that everything will be better if we the viewers visit the right website and chip in a couple of bucks. Yates’ films, like the world itself, have no template — they’re messy, rich with feeling, liberated from simple theatrical structures, always honest about what is possible. That one of hers ends with hope is a gift.