Cheers at the announcement of the verdict in 500 Years (Saul Martinez/Paladin)

500 Years is the culmination of director Pamela Yates’s “Resistance Saga” trilogy, her 30-plus years of documenting the brutalized fall and hard-won rise of indigenous Guatemalans. This third documentary is a valuable, and frequently moving, overview of media coverage, you-are-there protest footage, and interviews with indigenous activists as they organize the cross-cultural coalition building that toppled the corrupt Guatemalan government in 2015.

The title puts the oppression suffered by the Mayans within the longer context of colonialism. In When the Mountains Tremble (1984), Yates tracked the strategies Mayans used to defend their land and their lives in the country’s dense interior against smug military and political leaders who warred against them over decades through the 1990’s en route to squashing leftist guerillas. She searched back through her original footage (and memories) in Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) to prove that the military’s targeting of the Mayans constituted genocide; her crucial interview with General (later President) Efraín Ríos Montt was key evidence for his conviction (a verdict controversially overturned).

While all three documentaries include Nobel Peace Laureate, feminist, and indigenous advocate Rigoberta Menchú, 500 Years focuses on a new generation of activists: Earnest and eloquent Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a Maya K’iche’, is an academic anthropologist, who provides historical and cultural background, as well as a crusading columnist. Her headlines and key writings are seen as an influential political barometer.

Young and impassioned, community organizer and elected tribal leader Andrea Ixchíu, a K’iche’ de Totonicapán, is on the front lines of nonviolent efforts; she created and reported on demonstrations through independent online journalism and social media at a time when the mainstream press was pro-government.

Charismatic Daniel Pascual Hernández, a 45-year-old Quiche human rights leader, is president of the Comité de Unidad Campesina, an organization that united rural peasants. He describes bringing together widely dispersed indigenous peoples to peacefully march from distant rivers and mountains into the cities, first to witness and testify at the trial of President Montt, then to unite with the urban population, disgusted by police retaliation against the nonviolent street demonstrations and government corruption.

Proceeding more thematically than chronologically, radio and TV news reports provide the factual narration as Yates’s longtime editor, Peter Kinoy, frequently circles back to her 1982 footage, then to the president’s 2013 trial for witness statements and the defendant’s continuing legal maneuvers. (It is a bit confusing that images of what’s termed here as “the Uprising” in 2015 are repeated throughout.)

In an epilogue warning, Yates makes clear that indigenous people, who draw their strength from their land, are still threatened by government deals with multinational corporations for extractive mining. Brief mention of U.S. government complicity points to years of the encouraged clearance of indigenous areas for these purposes. So despite the uplifting scenes of celebration, the resistance continues. With Yates’s ongoing commitment, I wouldn’t be surprised if her trilogy becomes a tetralogy.

While not as deeply ruminative as Patricio Guzmán’s Chilean oeuvre, nor does it have the cinema verité immediacy of Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel’s Peru-based When Two Worlds Collide from last year, 500 Years is clear and accessible in presenting the struggles and points of view of Central American indigenous peoples. After this theatrical release for awards eligibility, this righteous documentary will stream later this year on Amazon Prime Video’s Film Festival Stars program.

Directed by Pamela Yates
Produced by Paco de Onis
Released by Paladin
USA. 105 min. Not rated