Documentary film 500 Years traces the genocide of Mayan people in Guatemala
Documentary film 500 Years traces the genocide of Mayan people in GuatemalaDaniel Hernández-Salazar

The third film from director Pamela Yates – of what she refers to as the 'resistance saga' – 500 Years sheds new light on the genocide of the Guatemala Maya people and the femicide of indigenous women in the country.

At the screening of this haunting documentary at London's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, we see Guatemala's majority indigenous Maya people's fight for justice. It has continued for over half a century, ever since it began when the 16th century Spanish Empire colonised the Mesoamerican region.

In fact, during the 1960 to 1996 civil war, at least 200,000 people were reportedly killed or forcibly disappeared. According to the UN sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, a staggering 93% of abuses were perpetrated by government forces – with 83% of the missing known to be indigenous Maya.

The film starts by chronicling the 2013 trial of former president Rios Montt for genocide, before looking at how the trial galvanised Mayan leaders – in particular, women: to make a stand against femicide – until the final coda which documents the 2015 uprising which toppled then-sitting president Otto Perez Molina.

The film's title is in reference to the discovery of the Americas some 500 years ago and the unending struggle of indigenous Mayans against the current ruling class. The story of their strive is one rarely told outside of the Americas and demands to be brought up to date – as Yates said at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival screening on 14 March, the "wisdom of the Mayans can guide us."

Yates' documentary does much to help those new to Guatemalan history; to understand its key issues over the course of half a century. What defines it is the filmmaker's understated directorial style where, instead of invasive voice-over, the camerawork does the talking.

Guatemala children's shelter
9 March 2017: Dolls representing the victims of a fire at government-run children's shelter in San Jose Pinula are seen, as part of a demonstration named 'Guatemala is Not a Safe Place' and performed by artists of the group Project 44 in front of the presidential house in the Guatemalan capitalJohan Ordonez/AFP

The often poetic cinematography lingers over faces etched with grief; in mourning for those initially ebbed out of their homes – by large corporates that crave land for lucrative mining contracts – who ultimately get killed in struggles with the Guatemalan army.

Femicide in Guatemala

Guatemala became the first country to officially recognise femicide (the killing of a woman as a hate-crime) in 2008, and at least two women are violently killed in the country every day, according to UN Women in Guatemala.

The courage and determination of the survivors shines through when they come face to face with their abusers. It took 13 years of struggle to bring one of the perpetrators of the genocide to justice, resulting in the 2013 trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt.

The screen is suddenly filled with Mayan women arriving in court for the Montt trial – their vivid multi-coloured clothes, with finely woven braids in their hair. Their faces are determined, strong and calm. These are not women to be put off lightly.

Particularly harrowing is the testimony of one young woman, whose face is shrouded by a beautifully embroidered shawl. She was gang-raped by soldiers and still suffers constant pain because of the brutality of the attacks. Her sobs are almost too painful to bear, but the story has to be told.

The camera cuts away to the daughter of Montt, all coiffured hair and designer clothes. She calmly speaks to the camera, saying there was "no genocide". Shockingly, there are many who still believe it did not occur, despite eyewitness testimony and work done by forensic anthropologists.

When Montt is challenged on the issue, his unrepentant reply is: "I never did it". The camera hones in on his perspiring face and lingers even longer on his lawyers who do their best to wriggle out of charges brought against their client.

In the spring of 2015, evidence of mass corruption in President Otto Pérez Molina's government was exposed.

On 16 May 2015, amid continued political injustice and the destruction of Maya land, around 60,000 protesters took to the streets in 13 cities in Guatemala demanding the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina in one of the largest Guatemalan citizen uprisings in history. Molina currently languishes in jail awaiting trial, but will he ever be truly punished for his crimes?

As Mayan leader Andrea Ixchiu says in the film: "We are learning how to be patient and resilient, full of hope and love. We are defending life by being connected with the earth."