By William Ramírez (CLACS ’15)
It had only been about two months since I started my position as Visual Arts Engagement Coordinator at MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana) in San José, California when I received the news from Pamela Yates in December of 2016: 500 Years had been accepted into the 2017 Sundance Film Festival!
An acclaimed documentary filmmaker, this was not the first time Yates, her work, and the team at Skylight Pictures have accomplished such a great feat. In fact, the two documentaries about Guatemala preceding 500 Years, When the Mountains Tremble (1984) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) also premiered at the festival in their respective years.
During my time as a student at CLACS at NYU, I had the great privilege of interning as a Research Assistant at Skylight Pictures. Part of my work involved researching and collecting digital, visual, and scholastic material on past and current human and environmental rights violations in Guatemala that could be used in the documentary. While not directly in line with the research for my master’s thesis on the cultural production (specifically, literature) of the Guatemalan diaspora and its connection with cultural and artistic movements in the isthmus, this work still allowed me to delve deep into the social and political contexts that have shaped and are still influencing not only the country and its people, but also its artistic production today.
At the time, 2015 was proving to be a tremendously eventful year for Guatemala. The CICIG (Comité Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala; International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), a United Nations-led initiative and body formed to help strengthen the judicial system in the country, had found evidence of, and was accusing, then-president Otto Peréz Molina and his vice-president Roxana Baldetti, along with many other members of his cabinet and the government, of corruption. This case came to be known as La Línea and launched a country-wide social movement, rousing the largest public manifestations the country had seen in decades in locations like Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango, to oust Pérez Molina and Baldetti out of office. Both ended up stepping down from their posts and were arrested. At the time, the country was also on the eve of its next presidential elections in November and candidates were competing fiercely for the post.
As a CLACS student, I was able to travel to Guatemala for my thesis research and also witnessed and partook in some of these manifestations in Guatemala City. As a son of Guatemalan immigrants in the US, this experience was exhilarating, as I had the opportunity to witness my parents’ compatriots of all backgrounds come together to voice themselves and demand what many of them consider to be absent in the country, justice. Thus, it was a tremendous honor to later learn that 500 Years was going to be premiering worldwide at Sundance!
This social and political environment set the stage for 500 Years. However, in this film, Yates deviates somewhat from her previous films in that, rather than centering the film’s narrative on the country’s Armed Conflict (1960-1996), which she did in When the Mountains Tremble and that also served as the background for the efforts toward the genocide case against former-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in Granito, she re-contextualizes the struggles of Mayas within the larger resistance against colonization initiated by the arrival of Spanish colonizers to the region; hence, the film’s title. In doing so, she also brings a complex and nuanced view to the movement in 2015, highlighting how Mayas also formed a significant part of it and had been resisting oppression in the country for centuries. As news coverage at the time reported, the 2015 movement was formed by diverse sectors of society, ranging from middle-class Euro-descendants, poor ladinos (mestizos), to Mayas, from both urban and rural areas. Demonstrations even took place abroad in cities like Los Angeles and New York. I went to the one at Washington Square Park.
At the premier, one of the film’s main protagonists, Andrea Ixchiu, a Maya activist from Totonicapán, noted that the film proved timely in that it coincided with current struggles by indigenous people in the US around the Dakota Access Pipeline and resistance towards its construction by the Standing Rock Sioux. As she aptly noted, the movements and efforts in Guatemala by Maya communities highlighted in the film, were not all that different from those in the US. Both, essentially, are rooted in the same centuries-long struggle against the settler colonialism that began with the arrival of Europeans to their ancient lands. It begs to mention as well, that Berta Cáceres, the indigenous Lenca environmental activist from Honduras, was also assassinated the a year prior for her efforts against similar human and environmental injustices in her country of Honduras, causing worldwide shock. The reference to the Standing Rock Sioux helped translate what was occurring in Guatemala with what was happening in the US for many of the film’s presentation attendees and its focus on indigenous resistance helped contextualize Cáceres’s own death as a phenomenon, not only taking place in the Americas, but, truly, worldwide. This was not just a Guatemala issue, it was a US issue, a Honduras issue, a land issue, an indigenous issue, a human issue, a global issue.
For me, to associate Sundance with anything Guatemalan, or Central American, or Latinx, was almost unimaginable. Yet, the vibrant colors of the huipiles of all the Maya women who contributed to the film, including renowned Maya anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj and her daughter, María Aguilar Velásquez, served to make a powerful statement: “We are here and we have a voice!”
Afterward, Skylight Pictures was invited by Kickstarter to a celebration at a Park City residence covered in what seemed like too much snow. The event proved very warm as people from all walks of life (filmmakers, scholars, organizers, activists, etc.) gathered to celebrate the film’s debut. It proved even more magical when the up-and-coming Guatemalan actor, Arturo Castro, who plays Jaime on the popular TV-show Broad City and David Rodriguez in the Netflix show Narcos, showed up to the celebration unexpectedly. As one of only a handful of Guatemalan, or even Central American, actors relatively visible within entertainment today, he, of course, proved to be sensational. Selfies galore!
Though, for me, 500 Years, proved to be ambitious for the scope of what one film can capture and convey, it, nonetheless, also revealed the powerful platform for change film can be. It, literally, brought all the Guatemalans and Mayas at Sundance together!
As a Guatemalan-American born and raised in Los Angeles, California within the MacArthur Park-Westlake and Pico-Union neighborhoods, the largest Central American enclave community of the United States, to work on this film was a tremendous honor and an opportunity to contribute to efforts to bring visibility and justice to the forces that initially led to the formation of the diaspora and which, in many ways, still do today. I thank Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, Peter Kinoy and the rest of the Skylight team for the opportunity to contribute my own little granito to this film. Thank you for all the work that you do!
It’s 2018 and I know this is a little late, but, we made it to Sundance! What’s next?