Yates’ new film returns to the highlands, gathering the testimony of Mayan activists and survivors before leaping into Ríos Montt’s 2013 trial, proceedings that prove heartening and horrifying. More than one hundred Mayans describe the executions of their families as Ríos Montt himself stares into nothingness, sometimes refusing to make eye contact with the judges. His lawyers, cruel and theatrical clowns, storm out of the courtroom, denouncing the trial as illegal. One tells the judges that he’ll imprison them someday. Ríos 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. (One bizarre detail here might stir fear in American hearts: After the truth-denying leader’s first conviction, his poised adult daughter, as immaculate in her couture as she is in her parroting of his lies, announces her own bid for the presidency.)
There are mountains of evidence, laid out by the prosecutors and, onscreen, by Yates. The trial, of course, is a triumph and a disaster, the eventual verdict undone by another court. But that painful revelation is followed by legitimate revolution. An emboldened press and a government watchdog group reveal to the public the extent of the ruling class’ corruption, a scandal rising right up to President Otto Pérez Molina, himself a key figure in the ’82 murders — and a proponent of turning the Mayans’ lands over to mining and hydroelectric companies.
The final reels follow a people’s uprising and the ousting of Molina, rare good news in a land (and a series of films) haunted by the violence that the powerful have always felt free to visit upon the powerless. The template for today’s issue-oriented documentaries is to showcase a devastating and intractable problem but then suddenly, in the final moments, insist that we should be hopeful, that everything will be better if we the viewers visit the right website and chip in a couple of bucks. Yates’ 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.