Critics' Pick

500 Years (NR)

Documentary 105 min. July 12, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
Justice prevails at last in 500 Years, the third documentary in Pamela Yates' Guatemalan trilogy, a work hitting screens 34 years after her 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 Montt to trial, which included gathering the stories of Mayan witnesses. As a member of Guatemala's congress, 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 Montt's 2013 trial, proceedings that prove heartening and horrifying. One hundred Mayans describe the executions of their families as Montt himself stares into nothingness, sometimes refusing to make eye contact with the judges. 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.

There are mountains of evidence, laid out by the prosecutors and, onscreen, by Yates. Her 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.
Pamela Yates

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