Five Questions With... Pamela Yates, director of 500 YEARS

Our first filmmaker to tackle this year's "Five Questions With..." series is Pamela Yates, director of the powerful documentary 500 YEARS, which is this year's Facing History and Ourselves selection. 

500 YEARS completes Yates’s epic trilogy about Guatemala, which launched in 1983 and contributed to the downfall of the nation’s dictator. Building on her previous work but accessible on its own, this sweeping story of resistance culminates in a genocide trial and the ouster of a corrupt president. The film bears witness to the experiences of the persecuted indigenous Mayan population and celebrates its emergence as a powerful political force poised to usher in a new age of hope.

Read more with Pamela below, and join us on Saturday, June 24 at 3:45 PM at White Heron for the screening, followed by a conversation with Yates, subject Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, and Marc Skvirsky of Facing History and Ourselves. 

NFF: 500 Years is the third in a trilogy of films documenting the Mayan / Guatemalan struggle. What brought you to this story originally, and why have you felt compelled to return to it?

Yates: I was working as a location sound recordist in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the early 1980s when I heard about a hidden uprising centered in the indigenous highlands of Guatemala.  The Guatemalan journalists trying to cover this story were being disappeared, tortured and murdered. I knew that the United States had overthrown the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, leaving a legacy of brutal military dictatorships. So as a U.S. citizen and filmmaker, I felt a responsibility to investigate the continuing role of the U.S. in human rights violations and to get this story out.

Guatemala wrapped its arms around my soul and never let me go. There is something so beautiful and spiritual about the country and its people. Yet it’s a country rich in resources that keeps its citizens in poverty. I’ve continued to tell the story of Mayan resistance over 35 years, with 3 films, because it is one epic story of determined resistance. And the films have had and continue to have universal resonance because they embody themes of justice, the quest for a sustainable planet, and indigenous rights while decrying greed, corruption, and racism.

I think it’s important for documentary filmmakers to stay connected to people and places where we’ve told stories. Not necessarily to make another film, but to make sure our relationships continue. We’re not rich, but we have rich lives.

NFF: Is there anything you've seen or learned from these stories that give you hope for the power of resistance in other cultures?

Yates: The whole idea for The Resistance Saga, which includes our trilogy of films about Guatemala, When the Mountains Tremble (1983), Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) and my new film here at the festival, 500 YEARS (2017), is to learn from the wisdom of Mayan resistance and how it may apply to better our lives. With the rise of authoritarian governments here and around the world, we will have to be smart and creative about resisting the advances of conservatism to take away our civil rights. It may be only once that I will get to present my lifetime of work precisely at the moment when it is most needed.

NFF: How willing were the interviewees you spoke with and documented to give you access to their lives and stories? 

Yates: When I was a young child growing up in the Appalachian mountains, and a new family moved into our neighborhood, my parents would send me over to find out all about them. I was naturally curious and interested, I was open to new people and ideas.  And that quality has served me so well as a documentary filmmaker.

Access is about building relationships, and it takes time and honesty. I make films independently because I want to take the time to get to know people, and to collaborate with the protagonists in the telling of each story. In 500 YEARS we are modeling a much more collaborative model of non-fiction storytelling by involving the protagonists not only during the production but also in our multi-year outreach and engagement campaigns, when we take the film out into the world together.

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a Mayan leader, journalist, scholar and public intellectual will be with me here at the festival, speaking with the film.

NFF: Do you feel that you've now completed this story? Or are there more films to come from the Mayan / Guatemalan people?

Yates: The saga of the Mayans of Guatemala began well before I began making When the Mountains Tremble and will continue well after 500 YEARS. The next generation of Guatemalan filmmakers are coming on strong, and I’m confident that they will continue the story with vibrant innovations and their own style of storytelling.

NFF: What do you hope Nantucket audiences will see / take away from this film?

Yates: I hope that Nantucket audiences will know that resistance is a life long commitment to social change and that they will be inspired by the Mayans of Guatemala who have been resisting for 500 years, since the conquest. I want to galvanize newly minted activists – those who went to the Women’s March on Washington last January, or everyone who traveled to the encampment at Standing Rock – to be emboldened and energized by the creative movement building they’ll see in500 YEARS.  Our extended discussion after the film will center this idea.

Photo Credit: Daniel Hernández-Salazar

Photo Credit: Daniel Hernández-Salazar

5 Questions with...Tom Scott, co-founder of The Nantucket Project (TNP)

NFF:  Mr. Tom Scott: co-founder of Nantucket Nectars; co-founder of TNP; Chair of the Nantucket Film Festival board.  I think it’s safe to say you love this place!  Where does your love for Nantucket come from?

TS: I grew up going to Cape Cod; went there every summer of my life. In college, I wanted space from my family and went to Nantucket and fell in love with the place.  It’s an inspiring place and one of the things about it is everyone is enterprising; so many work both for themselves and a variety of jobs. Being surrounded by that was inspiring to me. On Nantucket you have to perform and that spirit of enterprise relates to how I’ve grown here.

NFF: TNP operates across three separate platforms: (1) the annual September event on Island, (2) TNP IdeaFilms, in partnership with Harbers Studios, and (3) TNP Scholars.  Can you give a thumbnail portrait of each and describe how it evolved into this configuration?

TS: TNP is like this ‘message co-op’; all these curious people who want to be in a beautiful place are together.  People who are trying to impact the world and be the beneficiaries of what we do and grow year round in Nantucket.  Holly [Gordon, of TNP Scholars] is the galvanizing force of all the co-operative efforts.  At the September gathering, the best ideas from the Scholars are taken and shared, or are the basis for Films. Ideas become Talks that become Films.

NFF: TNP/Harbers Studios Presents is a new event at the Festival, marrying your TFF and TNP roles into the Ideas/Talks/Films Program.  Talk about how this program emerged.

TS: Mystelle [Brabbee, NFF’s Executive Director] brought it up and The Nantucket Project’s IdeaFilms notion is ideas from TNP scholarship that lead to talks at TNP that yield films which hopefully galvanize the entire effort. In conversations with directors, you’re often defining what it means as you discuss it; ultimately it manifests in different ways. But at the Festival, as at the September conference, the setting is perfect--a theater, short films--and it may or may not be obvious what we’re doing, but we hope that the TNP experience is preserved and NFF audiences will get a sample of what we do each year.  I’m glad Mystelle planted the seed!

NFF:  The Nantucket Project had its 5th Anniversary last year; looking back, what are you most proud of about its accomplishments so far and where would you like to see it in 2020?

TS: That’s a good question. It’s an unwieldy thing, what we’re trying to accomplish, but behind it is an ethos--we believe in cultivating things. People with a good spirit, working hard to create open communication are valuable and necessary. It doesn’t always work, but by and large it does, and in order for it to do so, it takes work. There’s a nuance we can directly appreciate, and hopefully others can too. All that I’ve said here can be best utilized and actualized through our films which are the most shareable aspect of our work. All the work we put into the in-person experience can’t be captured but for film. All the world can feel an impact through it. We did a film with Larry Lessig [Harvard Law Professor] seen by 5 million people, and it’s the one film that is the best distillation of the TNP talk experience [see it here]. It’s meant to give you the experience of being there. And if you get the right film, people, and director, you can make these transcendent pieces.

NFF: In your own words, why should people attend TNP/Harbers Studios Presents Ideas/Talks/Films?

TS: I think it’s efficient, valuable, enjoyable storytelling and you can’t separate enjoyment from learning...or, you shouldn’t!

The inaugural TNP/Harbers Studios Presents IDEAS/TALKS/FILMS takes place on Thursday, June 23 at 7:45pm in Dreamland Main. Tickets are available here.